Aida Shyef Al-Kadi describes her night at the Ramsey County jail in August 2013 as one of punishment and degradation, suffering constant religious humiliation at the hands of her jailers.
A devout Muslim, the 56-year-old woman said she was forced to stand naked in front of female jailers, then forced to remove her hijab for a booking photo, which was later released on the internet. She said her hijab was replaced with a bedsheet. When she complained about the treatment, she said she was locked in her cell for 23 hours.
She sued, arguing Ramsey County violated her constitutional rights and discriminated against her for her religious beliefs. The county moved to dismiss the suit, but in an order issued on Wednesday, John Tunheim, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, largely sided with Al-Kadi and allowed the case to proceed to trial.
"Al-Kadi has presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find deprivation of a clearly established constitutional right," Tunheim wrote.
Al-Kadi's attorneys, Caitlinrose Fisher and Virginia McCalmont, called the decision a significant victory for Al-Kadi and other Muslim women.
"For her and other women like her, this is one step closer to justice and acceptance in Minnesota," Fisher said.
Her attorneys declined to make her available for comment for this story.
A spokeswoman for Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who represented the jail, declined to comment, as did a county spokesperson.
Al-Kadi was born and raised in Ohio. She moved to Minnesota in 2005 so her daughter could receive specialized medical care. She said that in June 2013, she took her daughter to the hospital for an emergency, forcing her to miss a scheduled court hearing in Ramsey County over a driving violation. The judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
In August, Al-Kadi turned herself in and was first taken to the Hennepin County jail, where she said she was treated respectfully.
But after being transferred to the Ramsey County jail, she said her treatment took a sharp turn when she first arrived at the secured entryway, according to court records.
She was told to remove her hijab and abaya — a long dress that covers her body — in front of male jailers, which would have violated her religious beliefs. When she said she did not want to do that, she was told to stop resisting before a jailer grabbed her arm and forcibly removed her from the area.
She was taken to a holding cell, where she removed her hijab in front of a male jailer, which violated her beliefs. Al-Kadi considers wearing a hijab as a religious mandate, and can only remove it in front of immediate family.
When it came time to take the booking photo, she said she agreed to remove her hijab after being told that the picture would never be released to the public. But months later, she found it on a third-party website that charges users to take the photos down.
After taking the photo, officers gave her a bedsheet to use as a hijab.
She would later testify that she felt humiliated.
"A bedsheet belongs on a bed … not a human being," she testified during a deposition.
She was eventually told to remove her abaya and change into a jail uniform, while two female officers watched her. She felt this too was a violation of her religion.
Ramsey County policy says that misdemeanor inmates such as Al-Kadi "will not be viewed without clothing," according to court records.
Al-Kadi was then placed in lock-in for her "argumentative behavior," a jailer later wrote.
The next day she went before a Ramsey County judge, resolved her arrest warrant and was released.
In court filings, assistant Ramsey County Attorney Robert Roche asked Tunheim to throw out the lawsuit saying "the undisputed evidence, including video, shows (Ramsey County) acted reasonably and made good-faith efforts to accommodate (Al-Kadi's) religious preferences consistent with the need to maintain order and ensure safety."
But in his order, federal Judge Tunheim found that the jail failed to follow its own policies in forcing to Al-Kadi to undress in front of jailers, as well as failed to ensure that Al-Kadi would not be seen by a male jailer without her hijab.
Jailers "placed significant pressure on her to violate a central tenet of her religious exercise, including threatening her with disciplinary action if she failed to comply," Tunheim wrote.
Tunheim also threw out the testimony of Odeh Muhawesh, a former St. Thomas adjunct professor hired by Ramsey County to serve as an expert witness in the case. Muhawesh watched surveillance videos of Al-Kadi and concluded that she did not know enough about Islamic law to adhere to its teachings. For example, he said, she did not attempt to cover her arms when they showed. Tunheim called his testimony irrelevant.
In 2014, Ramsey County revised its jail policies to include that inmates who wear hijabs shall not be forced to remove them in front of men. A facility-approved hijab will be provided. Sheriff spokesman Roy Magnuson said bedsheets are no longer used.
Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626