The surveillance tape shows what looks like a Muslim woman, her face and body hidden by her traditional clothing, robbing a Philadelphia bank. But the robber in the abaya and khimar is actually a man. He’s part of a recent crime spree involving perpetrators in Muslim garb.
The worst of the incidents happened in Upper Darby when, Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood says, someone who appeared to be a Muslim woman went into a barbershop.
“The holdup man who was … dressed in Muslim female garb, was covered from head to toe. The only thing that was showing was his eyes,” Chitwood says. “He shot and killed the barber in the shop.”
Chitwood says police believe it was a love triangle case — the defendant knew the victim, and an arrest was made. But he says without additional evidence, it would have been tough to identify the perpetrator.
“It just makes me sad that they would, you know, portray our religion in this manner,” local resident Kezia Ridgeway, a Muslim, says.
Ridgeway isn’t covered as much as some women — she usually just drapes a scarf around her hair, sometimes with a long dress, other times pants and a shirt. She and her husband have talked about how the crimes might make people more suspicious of Muslim women.
“You can’t see the face, so you don’t know who’s coming into your store,” Ridgeway says. “It’s really just going to make it hard for Muslim women whether you cover your face or you just cover your head, it’s just going to be something wherein people when they see someone who looks like me, or they see another Muslim woman, they’re going to think negative thoughts.”
Muslim leaders are worried, too. Earlier this week, they joined Philadelphia politicians to announce a $20,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of any person who commits a violent crime while disguised as a Muslim woman.
Imam Isa Abdul-Mateen, secretary for the Majlis Ash’Shura of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, says fears about how the crimes could hurt Muslim women prompted the group to offer the reward. “It endangers our women; it disrespects our women. It makes a mockery of our women and Islam,” Abdul-Mateen says. “When they do this, it puts the Muslim woman in a bad light.”
He worries that women will be made to reveal themselves before entering shops and businesses.
Sitting across from him, Aishia Muhammed says she’s outraged that criminals are using the clothing that’s part of her regular wardrobe. Her clothing billows over her belly as she speaks; she’s pregnant with her seventh child, and she says she likes being able to cover everything except her eyes.
“Modesty is a huge part of Islam and it’s something we love to do,” Muhammed says. “We’re not forced to do it. It’s not a hardship or anything. I love when I walk out the door that I’m dressed this way, and I’m comfortable, and it’s a part of who I am.”
Even before the crimes began — there have been five of these robberies since December, along with the barbershop shooting — Muhammed says storekeepers were on high alert when she walked in.
“If I go into a store, to purchase, maybe I’m shopping, clothes or something, shoes, there’s definitely a lot of following. Following me around the store,” Muhammed says. “Or people will say instantly, like: ‘Do you need help with something? Can I help you?’ And it’s not polite — it’s a little aggressive.”
Abdul-Mateen says when criminals disguise themselves as Muslim women, he believes it is a hate crime against Muslims.