Muslim sues O.C. over right to wear head scarf

Times Staff Writer

A woman whose Muslim religious practice requires that she cover her head in public sued the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday, alleging her rights were violated when jail officials forced her to remove a head scarf while locked up for about eight hours.

Souhair Khatib filed suit in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, alleging that her right to practice her religion had been violated, causing her “extreme mental and emotional distress.”

Named in the complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, were Sheriff Michael S. Carona, the captain in charge of courtroom deputies and Orange County.


Khatib, 32, of Anaheim, said she filed the lawsuit to make other Muslim women in the U.S. aware of their right to religious freedom. Many Islamic women cover their heads and necks with scarves, known as hijabs, while in public as mandated by the Koran.

At least one lawsuit has been filed over the issue of wearing a head scarf in court. The suit, filed in Georgia, is pending.

A Muslim who in public wears a burka, a head-to-toe covering, sued the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles for requiring her to show her face for a driver’s license. The case was dismissed.

California DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza said Muslims are allowed to be photographed while wearing a head covering as long as their faces are shown.

Wearing the hijab “is an obligation,” and being without it is embarrassing because a woman’s head and neck are exposed to strange men in the courtroom and male deputies in jail, Khatib said.

“They humiliated me. We have the right to [wear] our scarves,” she said.

According to Khatib’s lawsuit, not wearing a scarf is a “serious breach of faith.” Khatib said she did not wear one while living in her native Lebanon but ended the “sin” of not covering up seven years ago, after arriving in the United States. She is a U.S. citizen.


Khatib and her husband, Amro, were convicted of welfare fraud last year and sentenced to three years’ probation and 30 days of community service. They were also ordered to repay $3,444 in illegal benefits, said Amro Khatib, 32. The couple, who have two small children, were interviewed Tuesday at the ACLU office in Orange.

The judge who took their guilty plea last year gave them about 120 days to complete the community service. The Khatibs returned to court Nov. 1, two days before the deadline, to ask for an extension. Souhair Khatib said that when Superior Court Judge Douglas Hatchimonji learned that she had completed only 15 hours of service and her husband four, he ordered them jailed.

ACLU attorney Hector Villagra said jail officials ordered Khatib’s hijab removed because they said it could be used to choke someone. But Villagra said a woman in the holding cell with Khatib was wearing fishnet stockings that were not confiscated and could have also been used as a weapon.

Villagra said that men in a holding cell with Amro Khatib did not have their shoelaces removed.

Sheriff’s spokesman Damon Micalizzi said the department’s practice is to remove articles of clothing from inmates for safety and security reasons. But Micalizzi said jail personnel were sensitive to inmates’ religious beliefs. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the agency allows Muslim female inmates to wear the hijab, but they must be removed during searches. According to Khatib’s lawsuit, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons follows the same policy.


Villagra said it would have been appropriate for Orange County Jail officials to search Khatib’s hijab as long as she was allowed to wear it while locked up. After being released from jail, the couple were given until January 2007 to complete their community service and complied.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and requests that Orange County Jail officials allow the use of religious head coverings.