It was in October 2018, just as I was about to board a plane with my family to Bahrain, where my sister lives, that I was stopped at Heathrow.
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 gives officers at UK ports a broad range of powers to interrogate, search and detain people for up to 6 hours — during which time you do not have the right to silence – as well as take your DNA, fingerprints and other data, without any suspicion of involvement in terrorism.
I was separated from my family by a man who did not identify himself, and who led me to two waiting police officers, one man and one woman. The officers then led me to an interrogation room. The first thing I saw when I entered was a prayer mat facing Mecca.
Almost immediately, the policewoman said I would have to have my photographs taken, and that I would have to remove my hijab in order to do so. I refused, saying it would be humiliating and violating.
They insisted that it was for identification purposes. I said I had all my ID documents, including my passport, driver’s licence and debit card, on me; there was no doubt about who I was. The policewoman responded: “I have no idea [of] the positioning of your ears on your face. Like, you might not even have any ears. We don’t know what you look like.”
At this point, the policemanoffered to leave the room. I said it didn’t matter, and explained my concerns about who was going to see the pictures once they’d been taken. I asked to speak to a solicitor. They called one, but said they couldn’t get through.
Over the course of the three-hour interrogation, the officers began showing their frustration; the policeman threatened me with arrest fornon-compliance; under schedule 7 you are legally obliged to comply with the requests of the police officers. Refusal to do so can result in a terrorism conviction and up to 6 months in prison.
Finally, the officers’ supervisor entered the room. He said his officers could remove my hijab by force. I visualised being handcuffed and thrown to the floor, my hijab ripped off.
Eventually, the solicitor picked up. He said there was nothing I could do, that I was just going to have to remove it. It was such a let down to hear that.
In the end, distressed and threatened with arrest, I complied. I felt violated.
As soon as I left the interrogation room, I knew I couldn’t let this injustice go – not as a Muslim, nor as a woman. So I decided to take the police to court.
I sought a judicial review on the grounds that the police’s actions violated my right to the freedom of religion, my right not to be discriminated against and my right to privacy under articles 8, 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights respectively.
The legal challenge took months. Throughout that time, the police insisted they had done nothing wrong. But then in October of last year, just a month before we were due in court, they admitted that having me remove my hijab was a violation of my human rights and therefore, the taking of the photographs had been unlawful. They agreed to delete my information and photographs from their database, and paid me £15,000 in damages.
Many people have congratulated me on my victory – but what victory? Wearing a hijab is my right, one I should never have been made to fight for.
Nevertheless, I am pleased others are taking the fight to the next level. A petition demanding that the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims take action against the Home Office for its discriminatory use of schedule 7 powers recently garnered over 30 thousand signatures. I argue they should go further. Schedule 7 destroys trust between authorities and the communities they are meant to serve – the government must scrap it altogether.
Asiyah is a pseudonym.