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New York police to stop forcing Muslim women to remove hijab during arrest

As part of a legal settlement, the police department will 'take all possible steps' to avoid making people of any faith remove religious head coverings
A woman holds up a poster during a rally to support Muslim rights outside city hall on 10 June 2017 in New York (AFP/File photo)

The New York police department has agreed to stop forcing Muslim women to remove their headscarves for arrest photos and detentions, following several costly lawsuits over the practice. 

In an effort to settle one of the more recent suits, the police department agreed to change its policy and allow religious people to be photographed in head coverings as long as their faces are left visible.  

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The two-year-old lawsuit was brought on by Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz, each of whom experienced separate incidents of having to remove their hijabs at the demand of the police department. 

"It was appalling that this was happening for so many years in New York and that our city was betraying the values of religious inclusion," said Albert Fox Cahn, a lawyer who represented the women in their suit. "But now we won’t see any more New Yorkers subjected to this discriminatory policy."

In Clark's original complaint, she recounted breaking down in tears, saying she felt naked after being forced to remove her hijab for hours when she was detained in January 2017 on a low-level charge of violating an order of protection.

In August of that year, Aziz was arrested on similar charges in Brooklyn. She said police made her take off her hijab for an official arrest photo in a crowded hallway with dozens of male prisoners watching. 

Protections for all religious groups

Under the new settlement, authorities would not be allowed to force women to remove their head coverings unless needed for a search, and the department has agreed to document for the next three years any instance in which it forced someone to remove religious headwear.

Meanwhile, officers will be trained to "take all possible steps, when consistent with personal safety", to allow prisoners to keep their headwear on in order to respect their "privacy, rights and religious beliefs". 

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The policy change, reached in federal district court in Manhattan, will allow other religious groups the freedom to wear other types of head coverings as well, such as skullcaps and wigs worn by Orthodox Jews and the turbans worn by Sikhs, among others. 

The agreement was the latest example of the NYPD changing policy to accommodate religious practices.

After a similar lawsuit filed in 2016, the department approved a new policy to allow officers to wear turbans and grow beards for religious reasons.

In a statement on Monday, Patricia Miller, chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division of the city law department, praised the latest policy change as "a good reform for the N.Y.P.D.".

“It carefully balances the department’s respect for firmly held religious beliefs with the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos, and should set an example for other police departments in the country,” she said.

A nationwide issue

Instances of the forcible removal of hijabs are common and have often resulted in litigation. 

In April, Muslim woman filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the Yonkers police department in New York after she was also forced to remove her hijab for a mugshot photo.

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The incident occurred on 26 August 2019 when Ihsan Malkawi and her husband were arrested in "false allegations of abuse" made by their daughter, which was later deemed to be "unfounded".

The legal action said the police department's policy violated the First Amendment, as well as federal and state laws and "must be changed". 

Malkawi's daughter had tried to run away from home a day earlier because she wanted to return to Michigan, where the family formerly lived.

In June, 18-year-old Alaa Massri, a Black Lives Matter activist, was arrested after skirmishes broke out between demonstrators and police and she was forced to remove her headscarf in Miami, Florida. 

At the time, Massri said she was left without her hijab for seven hours, while the photos were made available to "countless media" outlets, some of which published her photos online.