Woman hopes to become department’s first cop to wear hijab
PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — Huda Shalabi cracked her first case at just 10 years old.
A marble cutting machine had been stolen from her family’s backyard and police, citing a lack of witnesses and video footage, could not help.
So Shalabi thought she’d try. She remembered where the machine was last seen and that her father had been cutting red marble slabs with it the day before.
When she returned to the spot, Shalabi noticed the machine had left behind a pink residue trail. She followed it through the backyard, through the driveway, up the street and finally, to the perpetrator’s house.
Officers who were called to the scene were shocked, Shalabi recalled.
“One of them told me, ‘You can be a detective, a cop with a great mind like that,’” she told The Record (https://njersy.co/2ts4v9Q).
Now 20, Shalabi is well on her way.
Last month, she wrapped up an internship with the Paterson Police Department, earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Berkeley College in Woodland Park and began working at the Paterson Task Force for Community Action, a social services organization.
Shalabi’s goals for the next few years are lofty: graduate from Berkeley College with a bachelor’s degree in national security with a specialization in homeland security and become “the first Arab Muslim female officer who wears a hijab” in the Paterson Police Department.
“It would mean the world to me, like I achieved something, that I’m unique, that I stand out,” she said. “I could be a role model to other Arab females in my community.”
South Paterson, where Shalabi grew up as the fourth of 11 children born to Palestinian immigrant parents, is home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country, numbering about 20,000.
Women in the neighborhood are expected to either become housewives or choose careers that keep them largely indoors, Shalabi said. But her family never subscribed to such limitations.
“I want all my daughters to finish college and work with their degrees,” her mother, Sana Shalabi said. “Many people have said, ‘It’s very dangerous for her to choose this job, she’s a girl’ but I told them she likes this job and I want her to study what she likes.”
Her oldest brother, Mohammed, said he tried to persuade Shalabi to choose a safer career path but could not break her resolve.
“I realized that what she wants is to help out the community,” he said.
If she is sworn into the Paterson police force, Shalabi would make history, according to Det. David D’Arco of the Chief’s office.
“I’ve been here 19 years and there’s never been a female that’s worn it as far as I know and there’s never been a female that’s asked to wear one,” he said referring to her hijab.
There are currently 18 Middle Eastern officers serving in Paterson — all of them are men. About 13 percent of the 382-member department are women, according to the police department.
The department does not have a written policy on wearing a hijab, said D’Arco, but would likely treat it like any other religious exception.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
In New York City, four or five women wear the hijab on duty, Det. Ahmed Nasser, a department spokesman, said.
The department began allowing hijabs around 2007. The hijab must be easily removable in an emergency and it must fit under the police cap to be allowed, Nasser said.
“Anybody who wants a religious accommodation when it comes to head covering, the NYPD is willing to work with them,” he said.
Salua Kharoufeh, serves as a special police officer, a rank with fewer powers than a police officer and is not permitted to carry a sidearm, in Cliffside Park.
Jim Sues, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is not aware of any other Muslim police officers in the state who serve with a hijab but hopes those who pave the way are not treated differently.
“It shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll wear the rest of the uniform and the normal hat. The hijab should just be incidental.”