Police pay damages after admitting they unlawfully forced a Muslim woman to remove her hijab

UK border
Mohamed Elmaazi

Police have settled a claim against them after accepting that they unlawfully demanded a Muslim woman remove her hijab (religious headscarf) at Heathrow airport. The police also took a photo of Asiyah (not her real name), her fingerprints, and a DNA sample all by using the controversial Schedule 7 powers of the Terrorism Act 2000. The incident occurred in October 2018 when she had just arrived from an overseas trip.

Under Schedule 7 police can stop anyone at a land, sea, or air port without first needing to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal intent. Police can detain a person for up to six hours. Detainees have no right to remain silent, and it is an automatic offence under the Terrorism Act 2000 if they refuse to provide a DNA sample or their electronic devices, including any passwords or PINs.

A “horrifying experience”

After the settlement, Asiyah explained:

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Being forced to remove my Hijab was the most dehumanising and embarrassing experience of my life. I was made to feel worthless. I felt that my honour had been violated. Schedule 7 is a horrifying experience for a young woman like myself. The fact that the police can behave in such a way without any repercussions is frightening.

She continued, saying that it “wasn’t easy challenging the Police” but she found the moral support to continue the case as a result of the help of human rights group CAGE and her lawyers at Birnberg and Pierce solicitors.

Islamophobia exposed

Muhammad Rabbani, director of CAGE, argued that the police must have known they were discriminating against Muslim women which is why they chose to settle the judicial review brought by Asiyah. This avoids a precedent being established which would prevent them doing the same to other women.

Rabbani was himself convicted by Westminster Magistrates Court in 2017 for refusing to provide a password to an electronic device following a Schedule 7 stop at Heathrow. He argued, unsuccessfully, that he was protecting sensitive material belonging to an alleged US torture victim. There is no defence written into Schedule 7 for someone refusing to provide access to an electronic device.

Rabbani argued that:

Coercing Muslim women to remove their headscarves at Schedule 7, despite not being suspected of any wrongdoing, is a shocking violation with far reaching psychological impact. These revelations are evidence of the Islamophobic nature of Schedule 7 powers and why we’ve consistently called for their repeal.

Commenting further on the settlement, Rabanni called upon the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims to investigate the Home Office “over its discriminatory operation of Schedule 7 powers”.

Hundreds of thousands stopped, with only a few dozen convictions

The full number of people stopped under Schedule 7 powers has never been provided by the UK government. But CAGE, which specialises in dealing with the effects of UK terrorism laws, reports that 419,000 people have been stopped and interrogated between 2009 – 2019. Only 30 people have been convicted of offences after being subjected to a Schedule 7 stop during this time period.

The British government also refuses to provide a breakdown by religion of those stopped. Although, in 2014, a Cambridge University project known as Operation Insight found that, in a sample of people “stopped under Schedule 7 at a particular airport”, 88% were in fact Muslim.

A new report on Schedule 7 by CAGE details the terrorism powers which it characterises as both discriminatory and Islamophobic in their application.

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that the UK’s Schedule 7 powers violated human rights and were not “in accordance with the law”.

These are “draconian” powers which must be curtailed

Anne McMurdie from Birnberg and Pierce Solicitors, which represented Asiyah, called Schedule 7 powers “draconian” and said:

The police must exercise these extraordinary powers with respect for the rights of religious observance of those they stop.

She added:

It is concerning that there is no guidance or policy about when a woman can be compelled to remove her hijab when she is detained under Schedule 7. This lack of guidance has resulted in cases where powers are exercised improperly, where women have been photographed unlawfully without their hijab against their wishes and their photograph has been retained, perhaps indefinitely, on a police database.

Cerie Bullivant, also of CAGE, started a petition calling upon the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims to investigate discrimination against Muslims travelling through the UK. It also demands that Islamophobia be challenged “at all levels of society”. It has thus far garnered 33,022 signatures.

Featured image via Flickr – Danny Howard

Get involved

  • Write to your MP and let them know if you want them to abolish or curtail Shedule 7 powers.
  • Consider signing and sharing the petition calling on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.

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