Maryam Mohammed hoped to be the first Nashville police officer to wear a hijab. But records obtained by WPLN News show department leadership repeatedly told her she would not be allowed to wear her headscarf if accepted to the academy, because it violated the uniform policy.
The Metro Nashville Police Department quietly updated its rules earlier this year to allow officers to wear religious head coverings. But the change came too late for Mohammed, whose application was denied just days before she expected to start the academy.
Mohammed has accused MNPD of rejecting her because of her religion. Though the department denies the allegation, the Metro Council voted Tuesday night to settle her federal discrimination complaint for $65,000.
For Mohammed, though, it was never about the money.
“I was hoping that this Nashville case would actually go into federal court and it would become case law,” she tells WPLN News. “Then every single department in the United States would be like, ‘Uh oh, we can’t do that anymore.’ And everyone would change their policy.”
But after more than three years of back and forth with MNPD, Mohammed was ready to move on. She had already sold her house, uprooted her family and gotten a job at a police department in the Atlanta suburbs.
That’s all she’s ever wanted.
‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up’
Mohammed was 5 years old when she decided she wanted to be a police officer. Her mom’s house was chaotic, and she remembers the relief she felt when two officers showed up at the front door.
“If there was a real, live superhero standing in front of me, that was the time. The men in uniform standing in front of me,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to be when I grow up.’ ”
But, for decades, Mohammed had to push that dream aside.
When she was a teenager, things were still tense at home. So, in 1992, Mohammed dropped out of high school and started to work odd jobs. She was looking for direction.
Then, on a trip to Rome with friends a few years later, the young white woman who had never before left Connecticut discovered Islam from a man handing out pamphlets.
“He said, ‘Do you know who’s Muhammad?’ And I said, ‘Muhammad Ali, Clay, the boxer?’ Because I had no idea who the prophet Muhammad was,” she says.
She remembers feeling embarrassed. But that quickly turned intrigue as the man told her more.
Back home, Mohammed spent hours researching at the library. And after about a year, she decided to convert.
The religion took Mohammed to the United Kingdom, where she studied with a Muslim scholar and taught English classes to other Muslim women for almost a decade. That’s also where she fell in love with her Kurdish husband over a single cup of chai tea.
“I looked up at him, and I drank my chai, and I put my cup down, and I went back, and I told his Islamic teacher, I said, ‘Yup, that’s my husband,'” Mohammed says. “I, like, knew, just from that look. And we were married seven days later.”
The couple moved back to the states and eventually ended up in Nashville, where they quickly settled into the large Kurdish community. And more than two decades after Mohammed dropped out of high school, her husband encouraged her to revisit her childhood dream of policing.
A bitter rejection from MNPD
“My husband said, ‘You really need to think of your education and never mind these measly jobs. You need a career,'” she recalls. “And he’s the one that backed me and pushed me.”
So, Mohammed got her GED diploma. She enrolled in a criminal justice program at Nashville State Community College. And she started networking with Metro Police.
Mohammed remembers chatting with then-Chief Steve Anderson during a ceremony at the Kurdish community center and telling him she wanted to be the first hijab-wearing MNPD officer. Emails show she also invited instructors from the training academy to speak to her community college class.
And in 2017, she embarked on the rigorous, months-long application process.
“I had all this inspiration that I was going to apply and be who I am, the best I am, as a normal person, and I would not be discriminated against because of my scarf,” she says.
But, five days before Mohammed thought she would be starting the academy, she learned she’d been disqualified, without explanation.
In internal memos, a sergeant in recruitment wrote that he was disqualifying Mohammed for visiting the recruitment office unannounced to check on the status of her application and making “misconstrued statements” about conversations she’d had with several members of MNPD leadership.
Mohammed had insisted in emails that several top brass had assured her she could wear her headscarf. But records show the department accused her of lying. They said it was against policy to make religious accommodations, and that they never would have agreed to let her wear a hijab. In a memorandum, the head of recruitment said he had concerns about Mohammed’s “decision making ability.”
“I think that hurt more than if he had just came out and said, ‘We disqualified you because you wear a scarf. It’s not part of the uniform,’ ” she says. “That would have hurt less, because now he’s said a lie against me, killing my reputation.”
Mohammed filed a complaint in 2018 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the department of religious discrimination. The EEOC sided with Mohammed and said she hadn’t lied. Plus, the commission found that MNPD had a “blanket practice of denying religious accommodations,” which violates federal civil rights law.
Change on the horizon
That decision came in January 2020. More than a year later, the department decided to settle with Mohammed. And MNPD updated its uniform policy to allow religious head coverings, as long as they don’t prevent officers from doing their jobs.
“It’s a recruitment tool. If there is a female out there with her religious headwear, it speaks volumes to the community, the Muslim community,” says Deputy Chief Kay Lokey, who took over the bureau that oversees recruitment last June, just before Anderson retired.
“Now they see someone they can identify. And maybe that career that I thought would be neat isn’t so far-fetched now.”
Lokey says she doesn’t think the department was ready to make such sweeping changes when Mohammed applied back in 2017. But she’s trying to remove those barriers to entry now.
“Not only do we need to address religious head coverings, but we also need to start thinking about, what are we going to do when someone transgender wants to be a police officer?” Lokey says. “We need to think far and wide.”
Lokey declined to comment on the department’s policy before she took over. But she hopes the predominantly white, male department will soon reflect the diverse city it serves.
Mohammed, for her part, has no plans to re-apply to the Nashville police department, even though she’d be allowed to wear her headscarf now. She says this whole experience has broken her trust.
“My struggle and what I’ve done, I’ve succeeded. I’m a police officer,” Mohammed says. “I love what I do and who I work with, and I have no problems — other than I miss Nashville.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.