Traveling While Muslim: A Hijabi’s Airport Adventures
There are a lot of factors that come into play when you’re choosing the perfect travel outfit. You have to take the weather at your destination into account, you need to be able to move well enough to haul luggage around, and, most importantly, you don’t want to wear anything that could possibly suggest that you are a mass murderer.
If people look at you and think, “Please don’t let her be on my plane,” you’re gonna have a bad time.
I started wearing hijab at 18 years old, and, since then, air travel has become even more of a drag than it used to be. As a Muslim, I believe that living modestly is a commandment from God, and I choose to express that by covering my hair, neck, and body when in the company of men outside of my immediate family.
During the time I’ve spent in the United States, wearing hijab has rarely been an issue. Sure, I get stared at sometimes, but it’s mostly curious stares; my sister once told me to just pretend I’m wearing a huge, ridiculous hat, and, since then, the typical reactions I get don’t faze me.
But that all changes the moment I step foot into an airport. Instead of vague interest, I get suspicion. People seem uncomfortable sitting next to me. Their eyes follow me nervously, and their faces seem to fall when I stop at their gate.
Suddenly, I am a security threat. As if traveling didn’t suck enough.
Because of this, I try to look as harmless as possible at airports, which, with my chubby cheeks and hulking 5’4” frame, is no easy task. When it comes to travel-wear, I live by the words of comedian Dean Obeidallah: “Dress white, make your flight.”
I am sure that white Muslims such as myself typically enjoy a more privileged position than Muslims of other colors, but when traveling, it’s not enough to just be white -- you need to act the part. My preferred travel outfit is thus a pair of jeans, a ridiculously adorable (if I do say so myself) Elmo hoodie, and fuzzy boots. I also drag a purple and pink polka-dotted piece of luggage with me, just in case Elmo is a little too menacing for the not-yet-speaking crowd.
Unfortunately, all of the goodwill that outfit generates evaporates when the TSA gets a look at the scarf on my head. On the one hand, I get to enjoy the supreme honor of being a statistical anomaly -- I get “randomly selected” for extra security every time! Yay me! But, on the flip side, seeing me singled out for more screening only seems to confirm all of my fellow travelers’ worst suspicions.
Two years ago, a friend and I were flying out of Louisville to spend spring break in DC with my oldest sister. The lines at security were long, and a TSA agent with an unusually condescending attitude was lecturing us all on what types of clothing items we needed to take off before walking through the x-ray machine.
My friend muttered a vaguely violent comment under her breath about what she’d like to do to the agent -- maybe she wanted to dropkick her in her stupid face? I forget -- and I nervously shushed her.
“You can’t say things like that when you’re traveling with me,” I warned her. Bless my beautiful friend’s heart; she didn’t know I was currently campaigning for “Least Threatening Passenger.”
But my campaign was all for naught, for, as usual, I was directed away from the typical x-ray machine and toward those newfangled backscatter ones, and, as l always did, I uttered the magic words: “I’d like to opt out.” Not only do I remain unconvinced that those things don’t reveal naked bodies, but I also travel enough (and am “randomly selected” enough) that it just seems safer to avoid the extra radiation.
In the US, you have the right to opt out of a walk through the sci-fi scanner, but at a cost; you have to submit to a pat-down instead. And, while you wait for two agents of your sex to become available, you have to hover around security like you’re in time-out while all of the other travelers walk past you, wondering what you could have done to be punished this way.
In Louisville, it was an agonizing 20-minute wait. I was stuck there so long, someone tried to take my already-scanned laptop to lost and found. My poor friend just stood at the other side of security, confused and irritated, while everyone walking through ahead of me looked at me like I had just punted a puppy.
All the evidence I can offer is anecdotal, but it’s not exactly a secret that the rules governing airport security are bigoted. They systematically single out people from certain countries and of certain colors, as well as those wearing certain religiously-affiliated attire (not just scarves, but also turbans, robes, and anything outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition).
I don’t pretend to not understand why. I remember spending the day glued to the television set during 9/11, and, since then, I have seen far too much terrorism perpetuated in the name of my religion (not all terrorism, mind you, but too much). I’ve also seen my hometown become a victim of terrorism in the 2005 Amman hotel bombings.
Terrorism isn’t Muslims versus non-Muslims -– it’s terrorists versus civilians, and it is a risk we are all exposed to just by virtue of being alive in a volatile time. So I understand why security is tougher these days -- I just don’t think wasting time on me is making anyone else safer, and experts and studies seem to be on my side.
I don’t blame individual TSA agents, of course. They didn’t develop this crazy system -- it’s just their job to follow it, and, in this economy, I can’t really fault people for taking any job they can find. Even when taking me aside for the requisite feeling-up, some are just downright pleasant.
“I love your hoodie!” one exclaimed in Indianapolis while using the back of her hand to get up close and personal with Elmo.
“Thanks!” I said. Then she swabbed the back of my scarf with a giant Q-tip and tested it to make sure it wasn’t radioactive. Top THAT meet-cute.
I’ve been patted-down in at least four states. I’ve had my shoes and iPod temporarily confiscated in Germany*. But the only completely unforgivable incidence of airport discrimination I’ve ever witnessed happened to my older sister. We had just finished a family trip to Amsterdam (which, as you probably know, is the world’s most family-friendly location) and were flying out through Schipol.
Back then, my teenage sister was the only one in the group who wore hijab. We hadn’t even reached our airline counter when we were stopped by two antsy security officials, demanding to search the bag my sister was dragging. Just hers. I couldn’t help it; I burst out laughing.
I muttered, “I wonder why,” under my breath. I had only ever encountered veiled (ugh, no pun intended) prejudice before; I didn’t know how to deal with something so blatant. We had literally just walked into the airport, and these officials felt the need to run up and stop my sister from checking in. If teenage girls in headscarves were their priority, then I sure didn’t put too much stock in their security system.
We all have the potential to turn into monsters when we travel. Many of us can’t stop ourselves from whining about everything, from the weirdly specific rules, to the delays, to the seating conditions. It’s just not a fun experience.
But the truth is I feel so incredibly lucky to live in a time with the kind of technology that makes world travel possible for not just the most able-bodied adventurers among us. My family is scattered all over the world, and planes are what allow me to see them.
So I will keep putting on my favorite childish hoodies, smiling at TSA agents, and trying to appear as small as possible throughout the travel experience. And if I have to pray on the plane, I’ll just hope to God that no one alerts the air marshal.
*To be fair, my iPod was old enough that the security official actually said, “What is this?” when she took it out of my bag. It’s humongous. It is the RV of iPods.