By Naila Ahmed, CAGE Casework Manager
In March of last year, after hearing countless accounts of sisters being forced to remove their hijab at the airport during a Schedule 7 stop, we launched a campaign to highlight this injustice and to stand in solidarity with Muslim women, who are routinely at the sharp end of Islamophobia
In the past year, we faced multiple lockdowns, and the numbers of travellers reduced considerably. Consequently, 3,315 people were stopped under Schedule 7 in UK land, sea and airports.
However, though the numbers dropped, the violation remains the same.
This is the story of one courageous sister who was stopped under Schedule 7, but who launched a legal challenge, won and triggered our #HandsOffOurHijabs campaign.
Observing hijab is a fundamental part of my identity, as it is of many Muslim women around the world. It is more than just a headscarf; there is no doubt that a physical covering of the hair is part of observing hijab.
If you were approached by a stranger in the street who demanded you to remove your hijab, would you do it? What if this demand took place instead at an airport? What if you were threatened with arrest and the forced removal of your hijab if you didn’t comply?
You’d expect something like this to happen in a despotic country perhaps , however this is happening here in the UK, in London.
In a time when fear of authority is all around us, it’s a breath of fresh air when one comes across a story such as Asiyah’s. She is a young sister who has been through a number of challenges but overcame each one with her resilience.
Stopped and asked to remove her headscarf, or else…
It began when Asiyah made her way to the airport as anyone would to begin her holiday. But instead of boarding the plane, she was stopped by border police under a law known as Schedule 7.
Schedule 7 is a law in the UK which enables officers to stop, detain and question innocent travellers without any due cause or suspicion, to determine if they are involved in “terrorism”. There is no right to remain silent and you cannot refuse requests made by police during a stop.
During the stop, two male police officers told Asiyah to remove her hijab. Initially she refused – as most of us would – but as police became more threatening, suggesting they may have to resort to force, she had no choice but to remove it. You’d ask surely there was a reason for this – but during a subsequent court case, it emerged that there wasn’t.
Asiyah called CAGE in October 2018, just moments after the stop. She was distressed and confused that police had forced her to remove her hijab. In her mind it was a religious strip search.
I took her call and discussed the stop with Asiyah and explained more about Schedule 7, how it allows police to treat innocent travellers, in particular Muslims, like criminals.
I also explained what her options were for future travel, since the stop had gone on for so long, 3 hours in total, she had missed her flight.
I asked her to contact us once she was back in the UK so we could help her challenge what had happened to her.
Building a legal challenge to stop this happening to others
I discussed it with some of the CAGE team afterwards. I was concerned by the news that a sister had been forced to remove her hijab, despite her trying, repeatedly, to reason with the officers, and stop them. I could only imagine the trauma and pain she must have felt.
We met with Asiyah when she returned. We recorded her testimony and heard what she had gone through. She was deeply affected by what had happened and said she continued to feel violated and humiliated.
The way the police treated her and the things they said to her were both deeply offensive and ridiculous.
When she’d asked why it was necessary to remove her hijab (because how does this relate to terrorism?), they had told her they wanted her to remove her hijab so they could make sure she had ears!
Our aim was to support her through this ordeal and also assist her in challenging this. It was clear from what she had shared with us that there was strong legal merit to her case.
Asiyah’s case is significant as she is one of the few who have tried to challenge this type of abuse. Her reasons for taking on the police were principled. She kept saying that she wanted to stand up to it, because she didn’t want it to happen to any other women.
We began the process of challenging what had happened. We put her in touch with lawyers, who helped her issue legal proceedings against the Metropolitan Police, the authority responsible for forcing her to remove her hijab.
It took a huge amount of courage from Asiyah to challenge this legally. Not only did it mean battling with the legal aid agency to get funding for such a claim, but it also meant battling with the police (via her lawyers) for months on end.
This is because the police were adamant they had done nothing wrong and that there was no merit to her claims.
Growing a sister into a hero
This took a toll on Asiyah, as it would anyone. She constantly had to fight, at every stage of the process. It was draining. But she persevered, despite the hardships. This she did by keeping in mind her intention – to stop this happening to any other sisters.
Her resilience throughout the process was inspiring. I remember interacting with her at the start, when she was quiet and apprehensive. I could understand her fears and apprehensions around taking the challenge and all the toll it would take.
But I also saw her grow so much as an individual through it. I was honoured to have seen her through different stages of her journey and witness the strength that emerged from her.
Asiyah’s courage is exactly the kind of principled stance we strive to build in our community. It takes courage to take the police to court, and on top of that to speak out about it afterwards.
Since Asiyah’s first call, we became aware of many other sisters who had gone through the same terrible experience. Some had been asked to remove their hijab and they had resisted and the police had backed off, whilst others like Asiyah, had been asked to remove their hijab and threatened with force if they did not comply.
It was clear that Asiyah’s experience was not an isolated one, spearheaded by some rogue officers going beyond their limits. It was happening across the board, and to us at CAGE, it was clear there had been some directive given to officers to get sisters to remove their hijabs during a Schedule 7 stop.
As the months went on, Asiyah became ready for court. Although she wouldn’t be giving evidence and the initial hearing would be largely based on written submissions, she was keen for it to reach court so a judge could look at all the evidence and set a precedent that would clear the way for other sisters to stand up.
This is something I have seen many times in people who have had great injustice done to them. They want to see justice play out in their lives, so they can get closure, and their experience can have meaning and benefit for others.
No day in court, so a campaign begins
As predicted, just a month before the case was due to be heard in court, the police came to Asiyah’s lawyers with a settlement. They admitted everything they had done was unlawful and in violation of her human rights and agreed to pay her damages.
She had won the case. But the feeling was bitter sweet: a victory that few people would know about, nor would they find out about the greater issue at stake: the protection of hijab for others.
In addition, without the case going to court, there was no precedent others could refer to for future cases.
Asiyah told me when we were discussing her case for the campaign, that she remembered, vividly, the eyes of the officer who questioned her. The way he stared at her as though she had done something wrong. That stuck with me.
That three-hour-long stop has been etched into her memory, parts of it fading while some of it remains vivid and clear. The trauma of such an experience remains.
Some of the other women who spoke to us haven’t yet come to terms with this violation.
With Asiyah’s permission, we made her case the launch pad of a national campaign called HandsOffOurHijabs. Instead of the judgement being filed away and hidden from public knowledge, we decided to help Asiyah share her case with the public.
The campaign work began. We reached out to other Muslim women who had gone through the same thing, to inform them of Asiyah’s win and the plan we had for the campaign which ran with the #HandsOffOurHijabs call out.
Sisters from across the world step up in support
To build solidarity, we appealed to the community for volunteers to appear in a filming project for the campaign. The response was incredible. Sisters from as far as the United States, from all over the UK, and from all walks of life stepped up to show their solidarity and partake in the short film we produced.
It is people like Asiyah who inspire us to keep working. We hope this too empowers the community and others to take action when it is called for; to not let an injustice go by without changing it with good action (by your hand), or with just words (your tongue), or at least simply supporting those who do (with your heart) .
At this time, where as a community we are challenged by being physically isolated from one another, it has been a source of inspiration to witness how many have come together since its launch, to support the campaign and to honour Asiyah’s courage. This is because our sisterhood is strong. We should remember that courage is contagious.
 On the authority of Abu Sa`eed al-Khudree (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim]
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)