Muslim trade unionist calls on Houston police to revise frisking rules on headscarfs

Ilana AlazzehA Muslim protester is calling for revision of the frisking process at the Houston Police Department after she said she was stripped of her religious headscarf during a recent arrest this month while rallying for janitor wages.

The incident highlights the varying policies local police agencies have regulating when religious head coverings are allowed during the arresting and booking process. It also shows the fine line law enforcement must straddle when trying to respect one’s faith while ensuring that people who are arrested do no harm to themselves or others.

Ilana Alazzeh, 23, was arrested by HPD Aug. 1 while participating in a roadblock protest at a busy intersection in the Galleria area. She and two dozen other protesters sat in the middle of the intersection with arms interlocked.

Alazzeh, who has Israeli, Palestinian and Pakistani roots, was the only protester wearing a hijab – the headscarf – worn by female adherents of the Islamic faith while in the presence of men.

After their arrest for obstruction of traffic, HPD officers took the handcuffed protesters to the Police Department’s gymnasium to ID and process them before incarceration.

“Initially they were very cordial,” said Alazzeh, a communications specialist from Washington, D.C., who works for the Service Employees International Union.

She was called up to a table of officers for basic identification questions. One officer chatted with her about Ramadan, she said, and another asked about her headscarf.

A female officer at the table noted down in her file, “headscarf religious reasons,” Alazzeh said. “She told me, ‘I put that in there so you won’t be bothered because of it.’ ”

Minutes later, Alazzeh was approached by a different female officer who began the frisking process and started unwrapping her headscarf in plain view of male officers and protesters.

“Whoa, whoa! This is my religious headscarf,” she told the officer as she tried to back away. “Can’t you just feel through it?” she asked. “The officer said, ‘No, if you want your religious headscarf, you shouldn’t protest,’ ” Alazzeh said.

She said she pleaded with the officer, asking if a nun would be treated the same way, to which Alazzeh said the officer replied, “This is just procedure … I don’t know what you have in there. You might be hiding a gun.”

Houston Chronicle, 19 August 2012