In 2016, on the second night of Eid al-Fitr, Philando Castile was shot and killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in the car. I was involved in almost every protest after his death, including an occupation in front of the Minnesota governor’s mansion. When the occupation was eventually raided, I was among those arrested. I was the only visibly Black Muslim woman detained. I was taken to a Ramsey County facility, where my hijab was repeatedly removed in front of male officers. It’s an experience I share with many others.
Data on incarcerated Black Muslim women is slim, but reported cases of de-veiling date back at least 14 years. In 2005, Jameelah Medina was accused of being a terrorist by a Los Angeles County Sheriff and forced to remove her hijab. In 2017, Kirsty Powell settled a lawsuit with Long Beach for the “humiliation and distress” she suffered when her hijab was forcibly removed by police. Last year, the Council of American Islamic Relations in Michigan filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of Siwatu Salama-Ra, whose religious rights (including access to a hijab, Quran, and pork-free food) were violated while incarcerated.
These are only a scattering of cases, and more surely linger in the shadows. Unfortunately, not every case is reported, because doing so can lead to retaliation or long legal battles. Multiple groups have taken up fights to introduce changes across the country to address these problems, but the issue of violating Black Muslim women’s religious rights is deeper than policy.
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There is a legal precedent for allowing Muslim women to wear hijab while incarcerated. Along with the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, which included protecting the religious rights of incarcerated people. However, that precedent has been difficult to apply to incarcerated Muslims due to Islamophobia embedded within the carceral system. As noted by CAIR Michigan staff attorney Amy Doukoure, there is no uniform policy across facilities regarding the right to wear hijab. Instead, Doukoure said, “When it comes to county facilities and state facilities, every county and every city has their own policy. Or a lot of them still have a lack of policy.”
This lack of policy leaves a lot up to discretion, which poses unique issues for Black Muslim women. Although Black Muslims make up a fifth of all Muslims in the United States, we occupy a tumultuous space. Black Muslims experience an anti-Black extension of Islamophobia rooted within the “afterlife of slavery”. Theorized by African-American literature professor Saidiya Hartman, it refers to the continued devaluation and dehumanization of Black lives, accomplished through a “racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”
In some cases, the removal of Black Muslim women’s hijab is also linked to public shaming tactics. Educator and activist Angela Davis noted in “Are Prisons Obsolete?” that Black women are subject to regimes of punishment that differ greatly from those experienced by white women. Part of that includes publicly shaming or humiliating Black women, which is seen time and time again throughout the criminal justice system. The very existence of online mugshots and media usage of them is a great example and, for Black Muslim women, poses a unique concern.
In Maine, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office opened an internal investigation in 2016, after at least one Black Muslim woman — who was arrested at a protest — had a mugshot without hijab released to the media. In the opinion of other protesters, the decision to release the mugshots online was intentional.
When working on developing a policy in LA county, Margari Hill, co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, noted that law enforcement tried to slip in vague wording to leave things up to their discretion, and advocated for having dual mugshots: one with hijab and one without.
That “dual mugshot” policy also exists in Michigan, where Doukoure said women are often told they can’t wear headscarves for identification purposes, adding, “You’re allowed to wear them in your driver’s licenses and you’re allowed to wear them in your passport photos, so why does the Michigan Department of Corrections need a higher standard than every other state and federal government agency?” Despite the Michigan Department of Corrections having a policy around hijabs in general, there is no rule preventing those photos from going online. If they do, it’s essentially impossible to remove them due to the difficulty of communicating with online search engines and convincing them to take the photos down, and the department itself.
The issue of having a mugshot without hijab going online is one I’m familiar with. According to a Ramsey County Public Information Officer, the county’s official policy since March 2014 has been, “We exchange [their hijab] for one of ours (to avoid any contraband issues). We take two pictures, one with and one without. The one without is confidential and never released.”
But similar to the Black Muslim women in Maine, I was arrested while protesting the police. While I was detained, I was told by a male officer that I needed to remove my hijab for my mugshot. I complied, because the process of getting booked and released takes hours. I was too tired to argue. Despite Ramsey County’s own policy, it was the only picture taken. That mugshot was later released online.
Groups have attempted to address the lack of policy within their own regions, which illuminated other factors at play. For instance, cultural ways of wearing hijab that are dominant in Black communities are not considered markers of one’s Muslim faith in the same way that they are for other communities.
In the 1960s, the repeal of the National Origins Act and Asiatic Barred Zone led to an influx of Muslim immigrants, which led to the American public beginning to explicitly code Muslims as Arab. As a result, Hill shared that she would often have to demonstrate to law enforcement different ways to wear hijab and the various materials it could come in. She noted that if a Black Muslim did not have the proper “markers” to be considered “legitimately” Muslim — such as an Arabic name or a particular phenotype — then the reaction was accusations that “Oh, you’re wearing [a scarf] for fashion” and “You’re not a real Muslim, you’re a Moos-lim.”
This process of facilities taking it upon themselves to determine who is a legitimate Muslim — and excluding Black women from that — was also noted by Doukoure. In 2018, at the same time CAIR Michigan filed a civil complaint against the Michigan Department of Corrections on the behalf of Ra, the organization filed a second on the behalf of Marna A. Muhammad, who was illegally denied clergy status.
“We believe that because she was an African-American woman serving an African American community, they didn’t find her to be what they consider to be a stereotypical Muslim,” Doukoure shared. Muhammad was with Masjid Wali Muhammad, the oldest masjid in Michigan. “And therefore, they refused to recognize that someone like her could be a religious, spiritual leader that could have clergy status.”
Through the dehumanization of Black people — and our subsequent removal from the religious, as outlined by Delice Mugabo — Black Muslims are rendered invisible within mainstream discussions around Islamophobia, but still perceived as an inherent threat. This anxiety is transferred from colonial times, such as Charles V of Spain’s attempts to exclude “slaves suspected of Islamic learnings” after a revolt. Black Muslims as a threat to social order are well documented within the criminal justice system, where Black militant became synonymous with “problem” and then interchangeable with Muslims. The de-veiling — and general maltreatment — of incarcerated or detained Black Muslim women is a symptom of wider issues relating to anti-Black Islamophobia. Black Muslim women are regarded as inherent threats due to both their Blackness and their Islam.
The issue of de-veiling Black Muslim women within detention facilities cannot be read as simply an issue with policy implementation. Even when the right policy exists in writing, experiences like mine reveal that it is not actually implemented as a standard practice. Instead, people must reckon with the deeper, systemic issues leading to the simultaneous delegitimization and criminalization of Black Muslim women.