What should have been a great day became one of the worst days of my life. When I came to the Tulsa County Courthouse to complete my divorce, I was denied entry solely because I am a Muslim woman. I felt humiliated, embarrassed, and objectified.
My nightmare began with what is just a routine annoyance for most people: A small hair clip I overlooked set off the metal detector. The deputy working security at that entrance demanded that I remove my hijab out in the open in front of him and everyone else. My attorney and I politely explained to the officer that I wear my hijab for religious purposes and I do not take it off in public or in the presence of men.
For me and many other Muslim women who wear a hijab, it is as much a part of us as other parts of our clothing. We wear hijab as a sign of modesty, a sign of our connection to God, and a way to emulate one of the most revered women in our religious tradition: the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. I choose to wear hijab with pride as a way of showing my connection to my religion and my community ― as a part of my very identity. Being asked to remove my hijab in public by a man is like being asked to take off my shirt in front of him.
Instead of respecting my dignity and my faith, the deputy told me that my hijab was just like a “hoodie” and said not only that I had to remove it, but that he was going to watch me take it off in front of the other men in line behind me. He then called for backup, and four other officers arrived who continued to demand that I remove my hijab in front of them.
No matter how reasonable our requests ― for a female deputy to do the inspection in private, for the male officers to simply turn their backs to the inspection ― all we heard was “no.” I no longer felt like a human being ― I was treated as a threat, despite only wanting to finalize my divorce and begin living my new life.
As we became later and later for my hearing, my attorney and I went outside the courthouse, where two female deputies came to tell us that I could not go inside without taking off my hijab in front of the men who wanted to watch. Out of options, I finally asked the deputies if I could squat between two cars in the parking lot so that they could inspect me, and they agreed.
As I crouched down between two parked cars, I could see the male deputies staring at me from the wall of glass windows where they stood. Even though I tried to make myself invisible between the cars, I still felt fully exposed as I took off my hijab. I was forced to kneel down in front of them, a position of prostration and vulnerability that Muslims offer only to God. After seeing that there was only a small hair clip underneath my hijab, the female deputies allowed me to go inside the courthouse where I was finally able to be officially divorced, but I wasn’t able to experience the joy I should have felt.
I should have left the courthouse feeling safer than when I arrived that day, but I didn’t. Instead, when I left the courthouse that day, I was so upset that I accidentally got lost and drove 30 minutes out of the way to go home. I felt scared and alone. Since that day, I have struggled with feelings of shame, powerlessness and mistrust. Instead of feeling safe in the presence of security guards, I feel threatened and afraid. I feel that I have lost my sense of confidence and pride in my religion, which I used to carry with me in my heart every day of my life.
Muslim women across the country face these challenges on a daily basis. We are refused entry to stores and buildings; we are targeted by bullies; we even face violence and assault because of the outward symbol of our religion. In a country that values religious liberties, to have my rights violated as I tried to take the first steps into my new life was a cruel reminder that many people still see Muslim women as threats, not as valuable members of American society.
I wear my hijab as a reminder of my faith. And yet I never refused to remove it. I simply asked for the deputy to respect my religious beliefs and allow me to be inspected by a female deputy in a private space. Instead, I was treated with disdain and contempt.
I know this experience will be with me for the rest of my life, and I will never forget the fear and shame that I felt when I was forced to crouch down on the ground and remove my hijab before I could enter a public building. However, I hope to use my experience to seek justice for myself, other Muslim women, and all Americans by filing a lawsuit against the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office to ensure that members of religious minorities are treated with respect on entering public buildings. No one should have to experience what I did and I hope to set an example for my young children, that they may grow up in a country that honors their religion and treats them fairly and with dignity.