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Muslim woman sues Yonkers, New York, says police forced her to remove hijab after arrest

Wearing religious head coverings is a First Amendment right, the woman's attorney said. "We don't lose those rights because we have interactions with law enforcement."

A Muslim woman alleges in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday that police in New York forced her to remove her hijab in August 2019 for a booking photo.

Ihsan Malkawi says in the lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York that she and her husband were arrested in Yonkers in Westchester County "on false allegations of abuse," which her attorney said were later concluded to be unfounded.

As she was getting booked in jail, Malkawi was allegedly forced to remove her head covering, a "demeaning and humiliating" practice common in Yonkers although it has been ruled unconstitutional in other parts of the country, her attorney said.

The lawsuit against the City of Yonkers states that on Aug. 25, 2019, the daughter of Ihsan and her husband tried to run away. The couple found her that evening and brought her home, where the three then argued about the daughter's desire to return to Michigan, where the family previously lived.

The next day, unbeknownst to her parents who were out registering their children for school, the girl called 911 and falsely alleged that her mother and father had assaulted her with a belt and a curtain rod the previous night, the lawsuit states.

When the couple returned home, they were met by three Yonkers police officers who instructed them to go to the nearest precinct, according to the lawsuit. The couple agreed and drove to the precinct, where they were met by more officers and an investigator from New York Child Protective Services.

Officers questioned the husband and wife separately, and after Malkawi met with the investigator from the child welfare agency, she was arrested, handcuffed and taken to a booking cell, according to the lawsuit.

Malkawi alleges in the lawsuit that she was retrieved from her cell by a female officer who ordered her to remove her hijab for a booking photo, telling her, "You can't take a photo or go into a cell with this."

Malkawi claims in the lawsuit to have never been asked to remove her hijab in public before and that she told the officer that she could not take it off because it was not a fashion accessory but important to her religious faith.

The female officer consulted a male supervisor, who refused to allow Malkawi to retain her hijab for the booking photo. The officers told Malkawi, "It's the law," according to the lawsuit.

Agitated, distraught and fearful of further criminal charges, Malkawi "reluctantly removed her hijab to be photographed," the lawsuit states, adding that she was devastated and in tears. Two female officers then took her photograph while she was uncovered, the lawsuit says.

Malkawi spent a night in jail without her hijab and was taken to a city jail for processing where she was photographed a second time without the head covering, left in a holding cell for almost 12 hours and forced to wear a short-sleeved shirt instead of the long-sleeved shirt her faith demanded, the lawsuit states.

Her husband bailed her out of jail on Aug. 28, and her hijab was not returned to her until she was in the parking lot outside, according to the lawsuit, which says Malkawi was without her hijab for a total of 36 hours.

A spokeswoman for Yonkers told NBC News the city cannot comment on pending litigation.

Malkawi is being represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York, which, according to its website, "promotes and defends the civil rights of Muslims" in the state, along with the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff and Abady.

Ahmed Mohamed, the litigation director at CAIR NY, said the Yonkers Police Department violated Malkawi's religious rights.

The City of Yonkers has a policy of removing religious head coverings of arrestees, whether it's a hijab, yarmulke, turban, Mohamed said.

"This is not a one-time incident. This is a policy," Mohamed told NBC News in a phone interview Wednesday. "This is something that has happened to a lot of people."

Across the country, similar policies have been ruled unconstitutional, he said, such as in Dearborn Heights, Michigan; Portland, Maine; and a number of jurisdictions in California.

"The police department's policy goes beyond being demeaning and humiliating," Mohamed said. "It's a First Amendment right that we have here as Americans to be able to wear religious head coverings. We don't lose those rights because we have interactions with law enforcement."

According to Mohamed, child services investigated the abuse allegations and concluded they were unfounded. He said Malkawi pleaded guilty to a reduced disorderly conduct charge, but that that was not an indication of her guilt.

Mohamed said a class-action lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Malkawi and others similarly situated.

"At the moment, we do not know the size of the class, but it's going to be very large," he said. "Yonkers has a significant Muslim population."

The lawsuit is not limited to people in the Muslim faith, Mohamed said, as the policy affects anyone who believes in wearing religious attire.

Malkawi is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

"We are in the year 2020. Police forces have to abandon policies that cling to the past of not being religiously inclusive and not respecting religious freedom," Mohamed said. "We hope there will be a policy change."