MCSO Implements Muslim Head Scarf Policy in County Jails

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
February 4, 2010 12:00 am

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PHOENIX – The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has joined other jails and prisons throughout the country in implementing a policy regarding the wearing of religious head coverings by detainees and inmates.

Although MCSO jail officials said they adopted the policy in December 2008, it is being made public today by attorneys representing a Muslim woman who filed a federal lawsuit because she was denied her constitutional right to wear her religious head covering while detained by MCSO. In the lawsuit, the Muslim woman, Eman Mabrouk, was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona together with attorneys from the Phoenix law firm of Snell & Wilmer.

In a letter describing the new policy, MCSO indicates that it now allows Muslim women to wear head coverings during the intake and booking process after a brief initial search.

“We’re very pleased that Maricopa County has implemented a policy that strikes an appropriate balance between jail security and religious freedom,” said ACLU of Arizona Staff Attorney Annie Lai. “This policy recognizes that the act of wearing a head scarf is not a fashion statement; rather, it is a deeply held religious belief that cannot simply be disregarded or ignored by the government.”

The federal lawsuit arose when Mabrouk was forced by Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies to remove her religious head covering while she was in custody at the Fourth Avenue Jail. Mabrouk was detained in the jail in September 2008 and filed the case in June 2009, asserting that her religious freedom rights were violated under the First Amendment and federal and state statutes.

“This was a humiliating and degrading experience for me,” said 21-year-old Mabrouk, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, and has worn a “hijab” or head scarf continuously since she was in the second grade. “It may have been easier for me to have simply ignored what happened and move on with my life. But, I felt it was important to stand up for my rights and do everything I could to make sure other Muslim women weren’t ridiculed for expressing their religious views.”

MCSO denied the factual characterizations of Mabrouk’s complaint. However, the Sheriff’s Office disclosed its policy during the course of the litigation, which ultimately settled out of court. The terms of the settlement are confidential.

Under the policy, women who are not released on bond also will be provided with white cloths to wear as head scarves during religious services. The policy does not address whether MCSO must permit the women to remove their headscarves and change into the white scarves outside of the presence of males, a deficiency in the policy, said the ACLU. According to the tenets of their religion, Muslim women must remain covered at all times in public and when in the presence of men.

“While this is an important first step in safeguarding detainees’ religious rights, there is still much work to do in terms of ensuring that the beliefs of all persons in the jail are respected,” added Lai.

Mabrouk, who lives in Chandler, was brought in for questioning about a domestic dispute that had taken place in Phoenix. Sometime after midnight, she was booked into to the Fourth Avenue Jail. When she arrived, Mabrouk was informed by an MCSO sergeant that she would have to take “that thing off” her head.

Mabrouk is pictured with her headscarf on and her face fully visible in her Arizona drivers’ license photograph, presenting no identification problems. Nevertheless, pursuant to MCSO’s prior policy, a Sergeant ordered the removal of her hijab for the booking photograph and for the remainder of the night while she was held at the jail. He stated that she “may read the Koran” outside, but that in the jail, “you follow my law.” She was forced to remove her hijab in the presence of men she did not know and was not offered a substitute head covering throughout the booking process or for the duration of her detention. In an attempt to comply with her religious beliefs, she pulled the hood of the sweatshirt she was wearing over her head. She remained that way for many hours until the next afternoon, when it was time for her arraignment.

Mabrouk was never prosecuted in connection with the arrest that led to her detention.

“This case was about taking a stand against religious discrimination,” said cooperating attorney Ronald W. Messerly of Snell & Wilmer. “By verbally demeaning Ms. Mabrouk and her religion and implying that wearing her headscarf was ‘un-American,’ the defendants’ actions in this case demonstrated absolute indifference toward her constitutional rights and those of Muslim women.”

Messerly added that other jails and prisons throughout the country, including the federal prison system, have procedures that allow Muslim women to wear the hijab. Kentucky and New York also have policies protecting the First Amendment rights of Muslim women to wear head scarves in jails.

In addition to Lai and Messerly, other attorneys on the case are Dan Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona, and Benjamin M. Mitsuda of Snell & Wilmer.

Mabrouk and Lai are available for comment today from 1 to 2 p.m. Reporters seeking comment should contact Alessandra Soler Meetze at or 602-773-6006.

A copy of the letter describing the policy is attached:, along with the original legal complaint filed in Mabrouk’s case in June 2009.

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