A recent update on the Sikh Coalition’s Twitter feed suggested that perhaps things had changed with the United States’ Transportation Security Administration (the TSA):
Their skepticism is justified.
Since the TSA implemented its more intensive screening procedures in US airports, Sikhs have been concerned about the mandatory secondary screening of Sikh turbans for two reasons:
- The Sikh turban is a sacred article of faith for a Sikh. To have this handled or removed by another person against the wearer’s will is considered sacriligious and a violation of our religious principles.
- To search every wearer of a turban (who, in the US, are almost entirely Sikhs as opposed to Muslims) has implications of racial profiling. The Islamophobia that is significant in this country results in those who wear turbans to be considered negatively for crimes they did not commit. We have seen that as a result of this backlash, Sikhs have been the victims of hate crimes and other discrimination, particularly after 9/11.
Th experience noted in the Sikh Coalition’s tweet may not be typical. In my own family that includes all turban-wearing men, we have been subjected to secondary screenings on almost every flight. On a very recent flight, my brother was taken to a private room, made to remove his turban, and had his scalp inspected by agents (and not in the way I always tell him to have his head examined). It’s not the first time that we’ve experienced this kind of additional scrutiny.
Last fall, my brother and I were connecting through a US airport in the first part of an international trip. We went through the standard process: checking in our luggage, obtaining our boarding passes, getting screened and patted down by TSA agents, getting pulled aside and secondarily screened (turban patting/swabbing) by TSA agents, and then getting to our gate in anticipation of boarding our plane.
Perhaps it was because it was an international flight, but what was unusual at the gate was the TSA having all of the flight’s passengers line up along one side of the hallway leading to the jetway while our carry-on bags (having already been screened by security) were laid out along the wall opposite to us. Another agent guided a sniffing dog back and forth along the line of bags. The dog didn’t alert its handler to anything as it sniffed everyone’s bags (including those belonging to me and my brother). Another TSA agent inspected everyone’s boarding documents before allowing them to pick up their bag and board the plane – everyone except my brother and me. While everyone else was boarding the plane, we were told to pick up our luggage and proceed to a booth where two other TSA agents were waiting to inspect our luggage manually. We were instructed to do this even though our bags had already cleared security, and the sniffing dog did not pick up anything.
We had nothing to hide, and so made no issue. We presented ourselves to the inspection booth and after a few minutes of going through our items while the other passengers walked by us to board the plane, the agents allowed us to board as well.
We were the only turban-wearing men on the flight, and so it’s hard not to consider the possibility that the extra attention we were given was based on how we looked and nothing else.