A Muslim woman is suing the Sheriff’s Office of Ventura County, Calif., for forcibly removing her hijab while she was in custody.
Jennifer Hyatt was arrested on Jan. 1, 2017, when she was involved “in a dispute with her husband that was noticed by a law enforcement officer,” reads the lawsuit, the text of which was provided by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Los Angeles County chapter (CAIR-LA).
Hyatt wears a hijab in accordance with her religious beliefs. It covers her hair, ears, neck, and part of her chest when she is in public and when she is in the presence of men who are not members of her immediate family, as her religion requires women to cover much of their body for the sake of dignity, modesty, and “bodily integrity.”
While being searched at the detention center, an officer snatched one piece of Hyatt’s two-piece hijab off her head while male deputies were in the room. This is when she told the officers that she was a practicing Muslim woman and, based on her faith, could not be seen by other men without her hijab. “Not in here, you’re not,” an officer allegedly replied before violently yanking the second part of her hijab off, permitting any passerby to see her head completely uncovered. She asked for something else, like a blanket, to cover her head but was denied and wasn’t given any privacy. She continued to ask for a headscarf and finally attempted to cover her head with her hands.
“I was spoken to like I was trash and deserved everything that was happening to me while in custody,” the 44-year-old said in a statement. “My hijab was yanked off my head in front of many men despite my continued requests to wear it, I felt naked and humiliated the entire duration of my custody. I am seeking justice because I do still have the right to be a covered Muslim woman — even in jail.”
CAIR-LA held a press conference for Hyatt on Wednesday, at which she reiterated her desire to seek justice. “From the moment I was taken into custody, I was treated rudely by the men and women who took an oath to uphold the law and protect and serve everyone equally under that law,” she said. “I was spoken to like I was less than human and humiliated, both mentally and emotionally.” She said she felt “naked” during the entire time she was in custody and that male officers and inmates had seen parts of her body that they should not have seen, according to her religious beliefs.
CAIR-LA’s lawsuit says this treatment violated the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the California Constitution.
“Under the U.S. Constitution, it’s a First Amendment issue,” Hyatt’s civil rights attorney Marwa Rifahie tells Yahoo Lifestyle, noting that “the free exercise clause affords people the right to exercise their religion without burden from the government infringing their rights to do that.” She explains that the federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is in place to protect the public’s constitutional rights to exercise their religion. “Institutions that are ignoring these laws are going to be held accountable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — that’s the whole reason it was enacted by Congress.”
Rifahie is very familiar with this type of case. This is the third one reported to CAIR-LA in the past two years. “In the law enforcement context, Muslim women are being arrested and having this issue while in custody,” she says. “It’s a big issue.”
In CAIR’s 2018 Civil Rights Report, federal government agencies instigated 35 percent of all anti-Muslim-bias incidents reported in 2017. State and local police instigated 58 bias incidents in 2017, and that’s just what was reported. There were 126 bias incidents reported in a jail/prison in 2017. Of course, hijab-related discrimination is common throughout the country, in and out of prison; there were 279 hijab- or headscarf-related bias incidents in 2017.
“There’s more discrimination around women who wear a hijab, and it seems it’s because they’re the most visible, or it’s easier to identify them as Muslim because of the way that they’re dressed; it results in discrimination toward them,” Rifahie reasons.
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