Following a protest in support of Palestine at Portland’s Grand Floral Parade last month, Serine Abuelhawa was among eight protesters arrested.

Abuelhawa, a Muslim woman, was taken into custody at the Multnomah County Jail, where she was instructed to remove her hijab in front of male deputies. For religious reasons, she initially refused, which led to a tense interaction, a traumatizing day, and a possible civil rights violation.

The hijab is a religious headscarf worn by Muslim women to practice modesty in line with the text of the Quran. Traditionally, they are not permitted to remove the hijab in front of men, with the exception of their husbands and family members.

“Taking off my hijab in front of someone, it feels like I’m getting naked,” Abuelhawa says. “I know that might sound crazy to somebody, but I don’t even take off my hijab in public.”

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) protocol states that removal of the hijab will be done by someone of the same gender and out of view of male staff.

According to Abuelhawa, she requested a female to oversee the process, but a woman at the jail didn’t seem to know what the hijab was, nor its religious significance, which led the deputy to pressure her to remove the garment.

Abuelhawa responded, “just because I’m in jail does not mean I’m no longer Muslim.”

A police officer arrests Serine Abuelhawa during a protest for Palestine that
disrupted Portland's Grand Floral Parade on June 8. Abuelhawa was later forced
to remove her hijab while in custody at the Multnomah County Jail.  Kevin foster

Abuelhawa was marked “non-compliant” for not initially removing her hijab and was separated from the seven other protesters who were arrested.

Video footage from the jail shows Abuelhawa interacting with deputies for a few minutes before being taken to a private cell, where she removed her hijab in the presence of two female deputies. But after a search and pat down, deputies didn’t return the hijab and instead left Abuelhawa in the cell without her head covering. 

Abuelhawa says she was kept in a cell for approximately three hours and was not offered food or water. MCSO has designated meal times and each cell has a water faucet, but Abuelhawa says the cell wasn’t clean and the faucet was right next to the toilet. 

When it was time to continue the booking process, multiple male deputies—including some who were there for the earlier altercation—again observed Abuelhawa without her hijab on. She says the deputies didn’t offer to return her hijab or have a female staffer conduct the rest of the process. 

Abuelhawa was photographed without her hijab for jail booking records. MCSO protocol states that this is normal conduct, but that “booking photos will be taken without the presence of male staff when possible.” Video shows that didn’t happen.

Aya Beydoun, a legal fellow at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says these incidents are all too common. In the past year, she has worked on upwards of 12 cases involving women having their booking photos taken without their hijab on.

“It's deeply unsettling, it's deeply offensive, disrespectful, and it's illegal,” Beydoun says. “It's a violation of their religious rights because for Muslim women who wear the hijab, this is a mandate.”

Abuelhawa is considering legal action.

Her booking photo is not public, but the photo being in the MCSO database where anyone can have access is bad enough, Beydoun says. If Abuelhawa wants to pursue legal action, Beydoun thinks she has a strong case. 

It wouldn’t be the first time a law enforcement agency was sued over the issue.

In 2017, a Muslim woman in Long Beach, California won an $85,000 lawsuit after police forcibly removed her hijab. This year, a woman in Tennessee won a $100,000 federal lawsuit in a similar case. Another case in Dallas County, Texas is still pending, after three women filed suit for being ordered to remove their hijab earlier this year by jail staff.

While situations vary with some facilities lacking any directives on the hijab, at MCSO, it appears the agency’s policies weren’t followed.

“[If] an incarceree is telling you, ‘hey, this is my religious requirement, I cannot take this off in front of you,’ then you should have gone to your superior, you should have checked the manual,” Beydoun says. “The government definitely has an obligation to ensure that their officers are properly trained and that their officers are subject to some kind of punishment.”

MCSO says “the circumstance will be addressed with the booking deputies that were involved to ensure they understand MCSO policy.”

Most booking photos are taken for the purpose of identification. However, given that the hijab is worn in public, removing it for a booking photo may not be effective. 

“If you really want an accurate picture of what the incarceree looks like, you've got to have the hijab on,” Beydoun says.

For Abuelhawa, the whole experience was violating and humiliating. 

After her booking photo, she was walked through the facility by multiple male officers where she saw the other arrestees from the protest sitting in an open room rather than a cell. 

The others were released a few hours before Abuelhawa, while she spent more time in a solitary cell. When she was later given a meal, she says it included a sandwich with pork, which added insult to injury.

For Abuelhawa, the disturbing question is whether her treatment was intentional.

“I felt I was pretty cooperative,” Abuelhawa says. “Everything I said when I got to the booking phase was what my religious freedoms are…. It does make me wonder, why specifically me?”

Abuelhawa faces one charge of second-degree disorderly conduct, for linking arms with other protesters in the street and failing to disperse after police commands. She is due back in court July 11.