Airport screening process needs more cultural understanding

Khadija Saifullah

In just the past two weeks, two Sikhs were stopped by airport security. Actor Waris Ahluwalia was told that he could not board his Aeroméxico flight because of his turban. Airline officials didn’t budge. He spent another night in Mexico in protest, after which the airline issued a formal apology vowing to strengthen its protocols to better reflect the cultural and religious values of its customers. This type of discrimination, unfortunately, is far from isolated.

Just this past Monday, Youtuber Jasmeet Singh, known as JusReign to his viewers, was also asked to remove his turban during his encounter with airport security’s extra screening.

After finding nothing suspicious in Singh’s turban, he asked for a mirror to rewrap it, but the security had the audacity to tell him to simply walk over to the nearest restroom in the terminal. 

It may be difficult for those who don’t wear extra religious clothing to understand its significance to an individual who never walks out of the house without a headdress. To both Muslim women and Sikh men, their respective headdresses are an integral part of their appearance. It isn’t just something thrown on with an outfit, but rather represents their devotion to their religion. A turban is of huge cultural importance for Sikhs and represents dignity and courage. 

“I rarely fly because I’m constantly worried about how TSA and [how] other passengers will react to me boarding a plane,” biology senior Sunny Sandhu said. 

“The funny thing is that I’m heading to North Carolina this March to present at the Southern College Health Association Conference, and I’m actually more worried about going through security at the airport than I am about my 90 minute presentation.”

Both Singh and Ahluwalia have proven that it is possible to be successful in the entertainment industry, while still wearing turbans and practicing Sikhism. Yet, both encounters have proven that if you’re successful at what you do but you look different, you have to prove your humanity more than everyone else.  

Ahluwalia remarks that in the midst of his reaction to the Aeroméxico staff, he realized their training did not prepare them to respectfully handle other cultures. The problem is the education of some staff and the policy they enact because of their prejudice.

“Honestly it’s depressing to think how society has linked the definition of terror with a specific outward appearance,” Sandhu said. “I may have a dark complexion and wear a religious headdress, but I’m just as concerned about the national security of this country like any other American. We should be judged by our actions and contributions to society, not by how we look. The way that JusReign was treated is disgusting.”

The very essence of this country is diversity. When a country that was founded on religious tolerance fails to respect the differences of others’ practices, it has failed to its core. 

A turban isn’t equivalent to a hat. There are centuries of religious and cultural significance behind it that should be respected. When JusReign was asked by the TSA staff simply walk to the closest restroom, the staff failed to understand the importance behind the turban to a Sikh and offered an unreasonable alternative. If the TSA feels threatened by every seemingly religious person, they should at least provide mirrors and appropriate protocol for them to proceed on their flight. 

Saifullah is a neuroscience sophomore from Richardson. Follow her on Twitter at @coolstorysunao.