Race, Social Justice

This is what it’s really like to be strip-searched at the airport as a Muslim woman

Silently acquiescing to being singled out, patted down and perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, the experience is nothing to be looked forward to.

“They were threatened by my presence… [The passengers] would most likely have complained if I did board the ‘royal’ El Al airlines and poison the atmosphere.”

-Aminah AbuSway

There is little doubt that going through an airport as a Muslim-American is a nightmare waiting to happen. However for Aminah AbuSway, a 26-year-old Palestinian-American master’s student in Jerusalem, getting home from New York turned into the worst case of blatant racism she had ever experienced. Growing up between America and Jerusalem meant that discrimination was not a new experience for her. But after her encounter with El Al Airlines on February 8

But after her encounter with El Al Airlines on February 8th, she was stunned.

It all began just like any other trip to the airport. Horribly. A four-hour delay and one canceled flight later, Aminah ended up in front of the travel agent once again. If she wanted to get back to Jerusalem any time soon, her best option was to fly with the Israeli airline El Al the following day. She had heard the stories of their blatant discrimination, but it wouldn’t be much worse than the check points she had to go through in her own city. After a lifetime surrounded by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an airline couldn’t break down her barriers she thought. But occasionally, we still underestimate the power of racism. We assume that in today’s world our American passports will protect us from the worst of it. We forget that our privilege, our American-ness, has its limits. We do not recognize how far our fellow men will go to dehumanize us in order to build on their own ideals.

After showing up three hours early, Aminah was amazed that checking into the airport and going through standard TSA screening went so smoothly. Things didn’t go awry until she reached the gate and tried to get her bags checked into the airline. Because she was a last minute addition to the flight, the airlines hadn’t had a chance to run a background check, so naturally they panicked at her outwardly Muslim appearance. After rifling through her bags, they informed her that they had changed all previous airline procedure and laptops had been banned from the flight, so they had to check her carry on.

So, like anyone with incredible patience and tolerance, Aminah nodded and allowed them to rifle through her stuff. It was standard operating procedure after all, spending at least an hour fondling a brownie, not to mention the other books and clothes she had the audacity to pack. She was told to be at the gate an hour and a half early for more screening and then given an Israeli security escort to watch her wait.

With military rigor, they followed her. Not wavering for a second, they made sure she was aware that she was no longer free to exercise her own autonomy, having to even ask permission to use the restroom. Peeved, Aminah sat back and carefully ignored the stares from the passing crowds.

Meanwhile, the interrogation was well under way. Casually, they asked where she was from, what her connection to Jerusalem was, who packed her luggage, where it was packed, where her friends lived… the usual topics covered on a coffee date. After returning to the gate at the designated time, Aminah was met with two female officers who were sent to check her body, after already finishing with her luggage. First, she was asked to take off her hijab. Each strand of hair was separated and combed through. Next it was her button up. Then her shirt. They touched her. They moved on to her bra. They threatened to hold her off the flight if she didn’t remove it, so she gave in.

“They didn’t want me on this flight- I didn’t fit any of the acceptable categories: not Israeli, not Jewish. It was harassment laced with racism, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I lost it.”- Aminah AbuSway

By now her blood was boiling; she was indignant. She was in America, after all. This wasn’t Israel. They couldn’t ask her to do expose herself in public like this. The humiliation of being half naked in front of strangers, positioned where the male security guards caught glimpses of her through the partition of the sequestered space was getting to her. There was no respect for her privacy, and she was being told to remove more and more of her security and self-respect with each article of clothing.

Finally, they asked her to remove her piercings despite them being okayed by TSA security. Some of the earrings were too recent to remove without medical repercussions, so she refused. They pressed. She maintained it wasn’t necessary; since they could see the piercings, it shouldn’t matter if they were on her or not. Without further argument, the women let her get dressed, releasing her just ten minutes before the plane was scheduled to take off. She paused to retrieve her phone and purse, both of which had been investigated, before rushing to the gate. Looking down as she walked she realized her messages had been read and her belongings rearranged haphazardly, but she was too exhausted to find the words to protest.

When she was finally escorted to the gate, three more security officers were waiting to inform her she had been banned from the flight and all other flights through their airlines. Banned. Because of reasons allegedly related to ‘national security’. After being treated like a prisoner for hours, they wouldn’t let her go home and she had had enough.

“They exhausted me, and I broke down and couldn’t breathe through the tears. I was treated with extreme prejudice. They made me feel like this monster, this terrorist that’s going to explode at any second.” -Aminah AbuSway

Recounting this incident to me weeks later, Aminah remains in a state of disbelief that this entire situation occurred. She is no longer angry; she talked through her experience with family and friends, many of whom who had encountered similar situations with El Al.

She does carry with her the weight of the incident, the humiliation and anger that go with being unjustly detained and treated like a prisoner, but it is just another incident in a long history of discrimination that comes with living in Palestine. It hasn’t tarnished her sense of security and privacy, but she would never consider flying with an Israeli airline again. Aminah has moved forward, but she wants to ensure her story known in order to prevent future incidents like this. They mentally broke her down that day, and she adamantly believes that no one else should have to go through this humiliation and torture in order to board a flight home.

We hear about incidents like this regularly and lament the state of the country, the racism and the injustice. We call for reform in racial profiling, but we don’t often stop and ask the victims how they cope with the humiliation and psychological damage these incidents inflict. When Aminah first told me her story she was understandably livid, and I was right there with her. But what truly got to me was her reaction to what had occurred. The humiliation that she was put through that day, the dehumanization, and blatant discrimination built upon years of hatred directed towards her and something snapped.

I know other people have gone through similar situations, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Changing policy will help change prevent future incidents, but in the meantime reaffirming the humanity and the rights of these victims is just as important. Internalizing the fear and pain of being treated like a criminal has lasting repercussions.

Listening to their stories and empathizing is the first step to letting the victims know they are not alone in their outrage, and we will not let it consume them.