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Jail, detention policies must accommodate freedoms for all religions [Tallahassee Democrat OpEd by Hiba Rahim]

By Hiba Rahim, For Tallahassee Democrat, On 19 March 2021, Read Original
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The United States is one of the few countries that places the right to free exercise of religion at the top of its national agenda, in our Constitution. Although this federal document binds state and local governments, its implementation at the local level is often based on local priorities, local knowledge and often local biases — known or unknown.

The implementation gap is particularly glaring when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities, such as Muslim Americans, in the context of an arrest and detention. Often the policy makers simply don’t know (and unfortunately sometimes don’t care) how to treat Muslim detainees with the same dignity afforded members of the other major world religions.

The law really doesn’t ask for much, just that the detention facility accommodate religious practices or justify — under strict scrutiny — why it cannot be bothered to do so. Most Americans have heard of Kosher foods being part of the Jewish diet and don’t think twice about treating this as a requirement. The practices of other religions, however, like the Halal diet for Muslim detainees, are still treated as exotic and too often ignored.

For Muslim American women like myself, the practice of wearing a religious head covering (hijab) in public – particularly in the presence of men – is an outward display of modesty and devotion to God. Getting arrested is a traumatic experience for any person, but for a Muslim woman, having her headscarf removed before men and her photo plastered on the internet is like removing an essential part of her clothing.

I can hear the good advice now: “If you don’t want to be humiliated, don’t break the law.” Usually such advice is followed by, “Go back to your country!”

But let me remind that you that for marginalized communities, it’s fairly easy to get arrested in Florida, even if you’re not breaking the law. And granted, some Muslims do commit crimes. We’re not perfect. But even if a crime occurred, the detainee is innocent until proven guilty, and humiliation is not a lawful government objective.

Thankfully, things are changing: Just last month, a major milestone was reached thanks to the leadership at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. From now on, Muslim detainees are at least being provided Kosher meals, a step closer to Halal.

Additionally, the agency revised its intake policies to protect the dignity of Muslim women in the Duval County Jail. In the booking process, two sets of photographs will be taken – with and without the hijab. One will be published, and the other – taken outside the presence of male officers – will be kept in a confidential file.

While this is certainly a positive change, it is unnecessary to have a picture taken without a headscarf. Hair does not need to be visible for identification or security purposes; hair can be changed drastically in color or cut in a way that evades recognition. Government issued IDs like passports and driver's licenses are taken with hijab, and physical surveillance technology is based on facial recognition. 

These changes may sound simple, but the Muslim American community does not take for granted any steps toward the protection of our religious freedoms. As a matter of fact, that’s why many of the immigrants among us left their former homes to raise their families here. As Americans.

If you are interested in learning more about this work and how you can support it, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

*Hiba Rahim is the Muslim inmates advocacy coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida.


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