A six-figure settlement and sweeping changes in how female Muslim inmates are treated in Minnesota are among the results of a lawsuit after Ramsey County jailers forced a woman to remove her hijab and undress following her arrest over a traffic offense.
Aida Shyef Al-Kadi of St. Louis Park appeared at a news conference Tuesday with her attorneys at the Minneapolis headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to announce the settlement approved late last month in U.S. District Court by Judge John Tunheim.
“It was one of the most humiliating and harmful experiences of my life,” Al-Kadi, 57, said of her treatment in the jail in August 2013 that she alleged violated her constitutional and religious rights. “I knew that I did not want any other Muslim woman to experience what I did.”
Along with the $120,000 payout, the settlement includes having the jail put specific rules in place on how to accommodate inmates with religious headwear during the booking photo process.
The county, while not required by the settlement to admit wrongdoing, further agreed to destroy all hard copies and delete any electronic versions of Al-Kadi’s booking photo. Also, the Sheriff’s Office must train its corrections officers on policies concerning inmates and the religious accommodations they require. County Boad Chairman Jim McDonough called the terms “fair and in the best interests of our citizens.”
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR in Minnesota, lauded “six years of courage and determination by Ms. Al-Kadi, who has fought not only for herself, but for Muslim women to be dignified and treated with respect when they encounter law enforcement.”
Ellen Longfellow, a CAIR civil rights attorney, said Al-Kadi first visited the CAIR office seeking help after she was jailed. The office then wrote to Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the state’s most populous, about the issue. Hennepin County officials responded that they were in the midst of updating the county’s policy, and in 2014 developed one with CAIR’s approval that became a statewide model. Some counties revised their policies or adopted Hennepin County’s.
That same year, Ramsey County revised its jail policies to stipulate that inmates who wear hijabs cannot be forced to remove them in front of men.
CAIR also filed discrimination charges through the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but the charges were deemed unfounded. Al-Kadi, however, took legal matters in her own hands. She studied at the Ramsey County Law Library and filed the federal lawsuit pro se, or on her own behalf.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Janie Mayeron referred Al-Kadi to the Pro Se Project, made up of volunteer attorneys who assist people representing themselves in federal lawsuits.
Caitlinrose Fisher, one of the attorneys who represented Al-Kadi, applauded the courage it took for her to file on her own, and said it was a case that “had the potential to strengthen the protections for detained women that are Muslim across Ramsey County, Minnesota and the United States.“
“She made it clear from the beginning that this case wasn’t about looking backward, it was about looking forward and standing up not only for herself, but for the broader Muslim community; and standing up for the broader Muslim community is precisely what Ms. Al-Kadi did.”
The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office disclosed Tuesday that no jail staff involved with Al-Kadi’s booking were disciplined, because “their actions were in accordance with existing policy.”
“The policy, at the time, mirrored those for jails and correctional facilities around the region,” said Chief Sheriff’s Deputy David Metusalem. “Shortly after this issue was raised, policies were modified and there have not been any problems since.”
However, Judge Tunheim wrote in a ruling six months ago that kept the lawsuit on track that the jail failed to follow its own policies in forcing to Al-Kadi to undress in front of jailers and failed to ensure that Al-Kadi would not be seen by a male jailer without her hijab.
Al-Kadi, the daughter of a steelworker who was born and raised in Ohio, moved to Minnesota in 2005 so her daughter could receive specialized medical care. She said that in June 2013 she took her daughter to the hospital for an emergency, forcing her to miss a court hearing in Ramsey County over a traffic citation for driving without possessing her driver’s license. The judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
In August of that year, Al-Kadi turned herself in. She said that upon arrival at the jail, she was told to remove her hijab and abaya — a long dress that covers her body — in front of male jailers, violating her religious beliefs. When she objected, she was told to stop resisting before a jailer grabbed her arm and removed her from the area.
Al-Kadi was taken to a holding cell, where she removed her hijab in front of a male jailer.
When time came for her booking photo to be taken, she said she agreed to remove her hijab after being told the picture would never be released to the public. But months later, she found it on a third-party website that charges users to take the photos down. After taking the photo, officers gave her a bedsheet to use as a hijab.
She was eventually told to take off her abaya and change into a jail uniform as two female officers watched.
Al-Kadi was then kept in her cell for 23 hours for her “argumentative behavior,” a jailer later wrote. The next day she went before a Ramsey County judge, resolved her arrest warrant and was released.
More than six years later at Tuesday’s news conference, Al-Kadi stood amid her supporters and heard words of praise from one after another for the impact her perseverance made on behalf of Islamic women’s religious rights.
“Our faith asks us to stand against oppression either with our hearts, our tongues by speaking out and with our hands,” said Asma Mohammed, advocacy director for Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment. “Aida did all of those things. She didn’t just do this for herself, she did this because she knew that moving forward, other Muslim women deserve dignity when they are detained, that they deserve dignity no matter where they are.”