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US Muslim woman sues police for removing her headscarf

Powell says that while in police custody, officers forcibly removed her hijab in view of other male officers and inmates
File photo shows a Long Beach Police Department vehicle (Wikicommons)

A Muslim woman filed a lawsuit on Monday against police in California alleging that her headscarf was forcibly removed after she was arrested on outstanding warrants.

According to the complaint against the city of Long Beach and its police department, Kirsty Powell and her husband were pulled over by two officers while driving home in May of last year.

She was subsequently arrested on two outstanding warrants - one linked to her sister allegedly falsely using her identity and one in relation to a 2002 shoplifting incident at a grocery store.

Powell, who is African American, says that while being booked at the police station, one of the officers forcibly removed her headscarf in view of other male officers and inmates, telling her she was "not allowed to wear her hijab" and that policemen were "allowed to touch women".

The suit states that Powell "suffered and continues to suffer extreme shame, humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress" as a result of her experience.

"The actions taken by the Long Beach police officers were unwarranted and a serious violation of Mrs Powell's bodily integrity," said Yalda Satar, attorney for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the suit on behalf of Powell.

"The manner in which Mrs Powell was treated by LBPD officers was simply a show of authority over a woman of colour who was unable to protect herself, and is another example of the type of discrimination faced by women who wear a hijab," she added.

“I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience - it was horrible,” Powell said, according to a statement published on CAIR's Facebook page. “I want my Muslim sisters to always feel comfortable and safe wearing a hijab and to stand up for what's right. We are all human, we all deserve justice.”

First Amendment and Human Rights attorney Carey Shenkman added: "There was no excuse for male officers to strip Mrs Powell's First Amendment freedoms and dignity from her, in front of other male officers and dozens of inmates.

"The LBPD must honour its pledge that prejudice toward Muslim-American women will 'not be tolerated in our city," Shenkman said, according to the statement.

The Long Beach Police Department and city officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial and unspecified compensatory damages, comes as police in Los Angeles and San Francisco have come under scrutiny over racist and homophobic text messages and emails.

On Sunday, a senior official at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department stepped down after outrage over emails he sent three to four years ago mocking Muslims and others.

In San Francisco, several police officers have resigned or retired over racist text messages they exchanged among each other.