Muslim woman arrested in Miami protest forced to remove hijab for booking photo

A civil rights attorney called it a “severe violation of religious freedoms,” but a police spokesman said the department was following protocol.

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By Wilson Wong

A Muslim woman arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Miami was forced to remove her hijab for a booking photo, which a Muslim civil rights advocate called a “severe violation of religious freedoms.”

It also prompted supporters to start an online petition demanding justice for Alaa Massri, 18, one of seven people arrested June 10 during a peaceful protest against racial injustice. The arrests occurred after demonstrators spray-painted the Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de León statues in Bayfront Park, the Miami Police Department said in a statement.

Protestors covered the face and hands of Columbus in red paint and spray-painted “BLM” and “George Floyd” at the base. The demonstrations turned chaotic when officers arrested the vandalism suspects. The police department said in a news release that some demonstrators assaulted officers and damaged a police vehicle.

“City of Miami, we support peaceful protests but there will be zero tolerance for those who hide behind the peaceful protestors to incite riots, damage property, and hurt members of the public or our officers,” department officials said in a statement.

Massri did not immediately return a request for comment Friday, but a Change.org petition said the college student was aiding injured protesters before her arrest. The petition had received more than 45,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

Massri was arrested on suspicion of battery against a police officer, resisting an officer with violence, and disorderly conduct, according to her arrest report. At the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, her booking photo was taken without her hijab, which was not returned to her for the seven hours she was held there, according to the petition.

But a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department said Friday that policies are in place to accommodate people who wear head coverings for religious reasons.

“Arrestees, who claim or appear to be of a particular faith, are allowed to keep their head-covering once it has been searched for contraband and the booking photograph has been taken,” said Juan Diasgranados, public affairs manager for the jail.

Omar Saleh, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, said that removing religious head coverings during booking procedures — whether a hijab, yumalke, or turban — is a “severe violation of religious freedoms.”

Facilities enforce religious rights differently across Florida, Saleh said, adding “Miami does not have specific booking procedures relating to Muslim women wearing a hijab.”

He said removing religious head coverings during booking procedures violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects the religious rights of inmates, unless officials can demonstrate that removing them is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.

“We are committed to ensuring that individual’s faith-based beliefs and practices are respected and will review this incident to ensure compliance with our policies and this commitment,” Diasgranados said.

The petition demands the department not pursue charges against Massri and take down her booking photo from online databases.

“It’s not isolated. We’ve heard it before, and there have been lawsuits filed across the nation to rule this practice as unconstitutional,” Saleh said, citing a few jurisdictions in California and Portland, Maine.

In April, a Muslim woman filed a federal civil lawsuit in Yonkers, New York, claiming she was forced to remove her head covering before taking her booking photo last August. Ihsan Malkawai was arrested on “false allegations of abuse,” which were later discovered to be unfounded, and was without her hijab for 36 hours until her husband bailed her out of jail, the lawsuit said.

“This isn’t treatment that’s unique to Muslims, but it’s one where Muslim women who wear hijabs certainly bear the brunt of,” Saleh said. “There needs to be change.”