Turbans and airports: why can't they get along?
Last month, two high profile Sikh men were detained at airports and told to remove their turbans for "security" inspections: actor, model, and designer Waris Ahluwalia in Mexico City, and Canadian comedian Jasmeet Singh, known as JusReign, in San Francisco. The incidents returned the issue of Sikh discrimination at airports to the spotlight.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration passed regulations back in 2007 that allow Sikh men to keep their turbans on at airports, but this is not always enforced -- not just abroad, as was the case with Ahluwalia, but even in the continental U.S., as with JusReign, who complied with a removal request.
"For Sikh-Americans, humiliation is a prerequisite for air travel," Arjun Sethi, a policy director at the New York-based civil rights group Sikh Coalition, told the Huffington Post. "Asking people to remove their turbans doesn’t just cause inconvenience and frustration -- its humiliating, dehumanizing, and stigmatizes Sikh-Americans."
One issue with JusReign's and Ahluwalia's detainments is that Sikh-Americans say they already put up with a baseline level of extra scrutiny for any air travel. Sethi alleges the TSA so often subjects people in turbans to secondary security screenings that it adds up to a "blanket policy," and Ahluwalia pointed out in an interview with HuffPost Live that his boarding pass was printed with "SSSS" -- the customary designation that a passenger will require additional security screening. That designation isn't applied by security agency officials present at the airport, but by airlines, meaning there can be multiple layers of extra scrutiny.
"The SSSS designation has nothing to do with someone’s outward appearance or apparel," said TSA spokesman Mike England. "It is given to travelers via the Secure Flight system. Any passenger that produces an alarm during the screening process is subject to secondary screening."
To ask a Sikh person to remove their turban in public, on top of the frequently imposed additional screenings, is culturally insensitive for a number of reasons. Hair covering is an integral part of the Sikh code of conduct; many Sikhs don't cut their hair at all after they are baptized into the religion. Removing one's turban is like being naked, and only happens in solitude, like before bathing.
Per TSA rules, an officer may request removal of a turban "only when the Sikh traveler is unable to pass metal detection, or after a pat-down when a concern has not been resolved," and the traveler "always has the right to request a private screening area" for removing any article of dress.
JusReign was given a private room in which to remove his turban, but says he was then told he had to walk bare-headed through the terminal to a public bathroom in order to find a mirror to help him retie it.
One issue with the TSA's current protocol is that turbans are usually considered "bulky clothing," which means they are grounds for further screening. This classification also impacts Muslim women who wear hijabs, as the Council on American-Islamic Relations has noted.
"It’s time for the TSA to abandon it’s bulky clothing policy, because the main thing it does is ensnare religious minorities," Sethi said. He added that since most Sikhs comply with requested secondary screenings, those screenings should be "quick and fair" rather than prolonged or public.
There's also the question of how well and how fully TSA policies are enforced abroad for U.S.-bound flights, as was the issue for Ahluwalia. When Ahluwalia declined to remove his turban in public after passing other secondary security tests -- as TSA policy allows him to do -- Aeromexico staff refused to let him board his flight, then cited "strict compliance with TSA protocol." The actor remained in Mexico for two additional days until the airline agreed to awareness training.
The Sikh Coalition recently drafted a letter to the TSA asking the agency to ensure that all American security policies -- meaning those related to human rights as well as to those related to packing liquids -- be applied to anyone flying into the country.
"What happened with Waris was an important wake-up call for all airlines that fly into the United States and even airlines here in the United States and airport screening officials,” Gurjot Kaur, a senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, told Travel and Leisure.
But even within the U.S., just because the TSA has a policy about cultural sensitivity doesn't mean the officers who enforce it will necessarily be aware of it, as JusReign's experience shows.
Gurwin Singh Ahuja, executive director of the National Sikh Campaign, told the Huffington Post that according to a recent survey, 60 percent of Americans know next to nothing about Sikhism even though it is the fifth largest religion in the world.
And even though 99 percent of Americans who wear turbans are Sikh, more Americans think the turban signifies a Muslim rather than a Sikh, according to the survey. In this context, it's clear that basic education about Sikh culture could prevent TSA officers from repeating frustrating behavior.
As long as turbans are fundamentally misunderstood, Sikh Americans will continue to face discrimination at airports, suggested Ahuja.
"Do you know what turban is?" he asked. "When Sikhism was created, the turban was an equalizer, because it allowed Sikhs to rebuke the Indian caste system. It's a symbol of equality, and equality is a core American value."
It's high time airports wake up to that fact.