Local Muslim woman Sumayyah Dawud says a civil rights organization defending her in a religious-discrimination case against the Phoenix Police Department dropped her as a client after learning she's transgender.
The Council on American and Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country, offered to represent Dawud after she said a Phoenix police officer who arrested her had, despite her protests, removed the head and face coverings she wears for religious reasons.
Dawud first told CAIR-AZ about the incident in February 2015 and had been working with one of the group's local attorneys, Liban Yousuf, until he sent her a letter recently saying CAIR was severing the relationship.
His reason: She failed to disclose an important material fact about her case.
Yousuf, who declined to discuss Dawud's case for this article, never specified what the material fact was, but Dawud maintains that it's because she never told him she's transgender — a detail, she says, that has nothing to do with her religious-discrimination case against the PPD.
Dawud was born male but legally became female in 2011: Her driver's license and passport list her as a woman. And after converting to Islam in 2013, she began covering her head and face in public. She reports having no significant problems with her gender transformation or her religious conversion until she was arrested with other social-justice activists in October 2014.
According to a notice of claim filed as a precursor to a possible lawsuit against the PPD, her arrest unfolded as such:
As Phoenix cops were making arrests, she and her friends heard one of the officers yelling: "Where's burka? Where's burka?”
Upon spotting Dawud, a Phoenix officer “yanked [her] niqab off without asking [and] then began undoing [her] hijab.”
Dawud repeatedly asked him to stop, explaining that she wears the garments for religious reasons, to which he replied: "There's no religion where you're going."
Though no serious legal problems resulted from the arrests of the activists, local news outlets reported the story and published their mugshots. Dawud, embarrassed that a photograph showing her without her hijab and niqab was circulating around the Internet, approached CAIR to see if the organization's lawyers could help get the photos taken down.
She says lawyers from CAIR suggested that she file a lawsuit against the PPD for religious discrimination, and even though this wasn't her original intention, she agreed to do it with CAIR's help.
On April 23, 2015, the PPD was sent the official notice of claim signed by Yousuf and Raeesabbas Mohamed, an attorney with Kelly Warner Law (a local firm that periodically represents CAIR).
As far as Dawud knew, the case was proceeding normally – until July 7.
This was when Dawud was contacted by Nedal Fayad, chairman of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, who called her into his office to question her about being transgender because, he maintained, people at the mosque were complaining about her ambiguous identity.
Earlier this summer, New Times wrote about Dawud's struggle with ICC leadership after she was told that if she wanted to continue praying with women at the mosque, she needed to provide medical documentation showing she was “biologically female.”
Dawud says Fayad told her in a July 7 meeting that multiple community members had approached him to say they were upset that she was dressed as a female and praying with women. Dawud thinks, however, that his concerns stemmed from her potential religious-discrimination lawsuit.
“During that July meeting, Nedal Fayad told me that he had done a private background check on me, and he admitted that he had spoken with [Phoenix police Detective] Mustafa Masad, and that my name had come up,” Dawud says. She says that while Fayad didn't elaborate on what he and Masad spoke about, she considers it odd that he mentioned this detail during a meeting that purportedly was about her being transgender.
She says this detail made her uneasy for weeks but that it wasn't until CAIR's severance letter arrived that she began piecing together what she believes happened. Dawud now is convinced that Masad “outed” her as transgender to Fayad in “an attempt to sabotage any potential lawsuit against the police” and that Fayad, who knew nothing about the incident in which her head coverings were removed, “fell right into their trap” by outing her to CAIR because he wasn't sure how to handle the situation.
Fayad tells New Times that he knows Masad but does not remember meeting with him about Dawud. And Masad, who leads the Arab Advisory Board for the PPD, did not get back to New Times by publication time for this article, despite multiple requests.
As New Times reported in late August, it also was during the July 7 meeting that Fayad asked Dawud for medical documentation "proving” she was female, and recently, Fayad — who did not respond to requests for comment in August — recounted his side of story:
“The first time I sat down with her, I asked, 'Are you male? Are you female? What's the story?' . . . She said she could provide medical proof that she's female, and I said, 'Beautiful. If you can prove you're female, I'll have your back.'"
Fayad claims that if she had provided the proper paperwork, he would have defended her right to pray with the women, but the problem was that the papers only said she had “completed a gender transformation" and that he needed proof she had completed "a sexual transformation [through surgery].”
As far as Dawud knew, her conversations with Fayad were confidential, but she soon learned that he had told others in the community that she was born male and that he had shared copies of her personal medical documents with the mosque's board of directors.
When asked about this, Fayad says he and Dawud never agreed that the documents were confidential.
During Friday prayers on August 21, Dawud says, a woman from the mosque rebuked her for being a man and praying with women. The woman said Dawud's identity had been the topic of a recent community meeting — a meeting Dawud says she was not invited to attend.
Right after this confrontation, Dawud says, she went to Fayad's office, and it was during this encounter that he told her he had consulted with lawyers to discuss the situation and that the ICC had developed a transgender policy that she was now required to follow.
Fayad confirms to New Times that he set the following boundaries for her participation in prayers as a female at the mosque: She couldn’t use the woman’s bathroom, only a private office bathroom; she couldn't pray in the center of the room with the women but must stay off to the side; and she couldn't touch or hug anyone in the mosque, even when greeting close female friends.
Dawud was furious about the restrictions and thought about telling Liban Yousuf of CAIR. Coincidentally, she had a meeting scheduled with him to discuss her potential lawsuit against the PPD the following day.
She says she never talked to Yousuf about being transgender because it had nothing to do with the religious-discrimination case he was helping her with, but as she sat in the meeting, weighing whether to tell him this fact about herself and about the new ICC transgender policy, he beat her to it. Yousuf, she says, told her that Fayad had told him she is transgender.
When New Times wrote the first article about Dawud in August, she didn't mention the potential lawsuit, she says, for fear of revealing sensitive legal material, but after recent events, she no longer hesitates to give her account of what happened behind closed doors.
Dawud says Yousuf told her that he actually had learned she was transgender in July because he was the lawyer Fayad had consulted about the matter.
“Liban [Yousuf] also told me that Nedal [Fayad] told him that he had met with Mustafa Masad [of the PPD] and that Masad had given him documents about me,” Dawud says. “Documents that had my personal information on them.”
While Yousuf declined to discuss the case for this story, he did say that as an organization, CAIR doesn't discriminate based on sex, gender, race, religion, orientation, or anything else.
She claims Yousuf also told her that he thought news about her being transgender could create “community controversy” that wouldn't help her potential suit. She says he didn't say at this time that CAIR wanted to deop the case, but he did suggest that an organization like the ACLU might be better suited to litigate on her behalf.Six days later, on August 28, the New Times article about her struggles with the ICC leadership was published, and CAIR promptly stopped returning her phone calls and e-mails, she says.
The story was picked up by other news outlets, and according to Dawud, journalists told her that Fayad had given them her male birth name.
Fayad responds that he did not specifically mention her name to reporters but told them they could discover it through a Google search. He maintains that a friend of Dawud's at the mosque originally told him the name but that he was able to find it online, too. He denies that the PPD's Masad revealed it, which is what Dawud believes happened.
Dawud says she never has disclosed the name to any of her friends in the Muslim community and never would.
Angry about Fayad's allegedly sharing her birth name and about CAIR's allegedly refusing to return her phone calls, Dawud filed an official complaint against CAIR with the Arizona Bar Association on October 15, claiming that CAIR discriminated against her based on her sex and that the organization created a conflict of interest by talking about her with Fayad.
On the evening after she filed her complaint, she says, she received the e-mail from Yousuf terminating CAIR’s representation of her:
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"The relationship was severed because you failed to disclose a material fact that will adversely [affect the] the outcome of your case, causing your case to become significantly more difficult and resource costly,” Yousuf wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by New Times.
Though Yousuf does not specifically say what the "material fact" was in the letter — he repeatedly declined to tell New Times, too — Dawud thinks it only can be that she's transgender.
"What material fact was it if it wasn't that?" she says. "If it was some other reason, why wouldn't he have had a meeting with me to discuss the issue?"
**Update 10/21/2015 4:45 pm: The Arizona State Bar dismissed Sumayyah Dawud's complaint against Liban Yousuf of CAIR.