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Somali refuses to leave cell to eat in protest of Minnesota jail's ban on headscarf

ST. PAUL Less than a week after she was convicted in a scheme to send money to a group battling Somalia's fledgling government, Amina Farah Ali is refusing to come out of her jail cell to eat, her attorney said. The issue stems from the Rochester...


Less than a week after she was convicted in a scheme to send money to a group battling Somalia's fledgling government, Amina Farah Ali is refusing to come out of her jail cell to eat, her attorney said.

The issue stems from the Rochester, Minn., woman's belief that her religion, Islam, requires her to wear a head covering, or hijab, when in public. The Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minn., where she is being held, doesn't allow them.

The jail forbid the covering despite a judge's assurances to the woman last week in a Minneapolis courtroom that her religious customs would be accommodated.

But Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis didn't spell out how far those accommodations would go, and the man in charge of the jail said prisoners aren't allowed to wear anything on their heads.


"All inmates are issued jail-issue clothing, and they have to wear that" said Pat Carr, jail commander for the Sherburne County sheriff's office. "Nobody wears hats while in custody, or any type of headgear."

He said Ali wasn't being singled out for her religion.

"It's like any religious person," he said. "A Christian couldn't wear a crucifix. No personal clothing is allowed in the jail."

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott said Ali was eating, but he didn't know if she was eating in a dayroom with other prisoners or was having food brought to her cell.

"We don't have any concerns," he said.

Ali, 35, was convicted last Thursday of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Shabaab, a Somali group the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

She also was found guilty of 12 counts of providing material support stemming from a dozen wire transfers totaling $8,608 she made to al-Shabaab between September 2008 and July 2009.

Co-defendant Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64, of Rochester was convicted of conspiracy and two counts of lying to the FBI.


After the verdicts were delivered, Davis sent Hassan to a halfway house to await sentencing, but he told Ali he was sending her to jail.

Ali told the judge she wanted to be "protected" from being handled or seen by male corrections officers. Her comments stemmed from two nights she spent in the Sherburne County Jail at the start of the trial after Davis found her in contempt for refusing to stand each time court convened and recessed.

She based that refusal on religion, too. She said a passage in haddith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, included a story of how the prophet told a group they needn't stand when they greet him.

Ali told Davis that if she wouldn't have to rise for the Muhammad, she didn't have to stand when court was convened. He gave her five days in jail for each time she remained seated.

On the trial's third day -- after two nights in jail -- she began to stand when instructed. But she complained she had been mistreated and that jailers hadn't allowed her to observe her religious customs.

After the verdict, Davis told Ali that whatever facility she was sent to "will be aware of any customs that have to be met because of your religion."

He didn't spell those out, though, and Ali's attorney, Dan Scott, said Wednesday that the judge's instructions generally end at the jail door.

"He's a judge. The sheriff is the sheriff. Those are two different worlds," Scott said.


Ramsey County jailers don't allow Muslim women to wear hijab, said sheriff's spokesman Randy Gustafson. He said it is a safety issue, and the same policy bars belts or any other item that isn't jail-issue.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections allows women to wear hijabs in their cell or at religious services, but inmates can't wear them when they are in the general prison population.

Corrections spokesman John Schadl said the policy extends to other religions.

There is a variety of opinion among Muslims on whether women must wear hijabs. In general, Islam holds that both men and women should dress modestly, and some interpret passages in the Quran to mean women should cover their heads when in public.

Other Muslims interpret the passages differently, believing a woman's decision whether to wear a hijab is hers alone.

Scott said he believed he should pursue a solution through the jail's administrative procedures before taking the matter to court.

"I can't believe they won't let her wear a scarf on her head," he said. "I think it'll get resolved. It's just a matter of talking to people."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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