Getting Your Hijab Felt Up By TSA is an Interesting Sensation

My plane is taking off to Turkey as I type this. (Woo I can feel the plane lifting off right now… the exhilaration!) I’m actually writing this on my iPhone; I’m hoping once I land in Istanbul, God willing, I’ll be able to find a nice little coffee shop with WiFi where I can pull out my hot pink laptop like I did in Germany and upload this… Though since its wintertime, my wardrobe has changed a bit (see below).

Ready for take-off!

So the thing that prompted my urgency to type this as soon as I got my arms free of luggage was what I just experienced in the airport during my departure. I’ve always felt the discomfort of being a hijabi in an airport, but man, this time I really felt it. This is my first time travelling overseas by myself. I usually travel with my father, so I guess being accompanied by a big Arab man is enough to discourage ignoramuses from acting dumb with me. So this time, it seemed that there was nothing stopping a gaggle of chauffeurs from giving me weird looks and mumbling in low voices as I passed by them, and then yelling “9/11! 9/11!” at me as soon as I had my back turned.

When I turned around to confront whoever it was that had just dropped some ignorance on me, the area dulled back down to a weak murmur and all I saw was a couple of dirty grins. I tried to stare them down a little bit (I hear my eye expressions can turn people to stone) but at that point my notorious tardiness was about to make me miss my flight, so I rushed off.

Suddenly, I became all too aware of my hijab – that meaningless piece of fabric on my head that I often forget is there – and that it often dictates others’ interactions with me, even when I don’t realize it. I headed over to the security checkpoint, preparing myself for the inconvenient process that was about to ensue, which many people in line probably wouldn’t have had a problem blaming me for since it’s apparently appropriate for me to take the heat for 9/11.

That sticker on my laptop is a fingerprint with an eye-cutout, resembling either a terrorist mask or a niqab. Symbolic of the only two ways that our identities are perceived in the West, huh?

Because of that slur, I definitely felt self-conscious about my “flying while Muslim” status as I waited in line, so I made sure I kept a smile on my face and acted really friendly and welcoming with the people around me. See? I’m a sweet person. You all have nothing to worry about. Muslims can be good people, forget what you heard. I hate the new TSA fully body scanner, especially because of things I’ve read that not only show how pointless they are but also how demeaning the whole process can be. Even though they don’t advertise it, I knew I had the option to ask for a body search, which I was planning to request when it was my turn, but because of my state of heightened discomfort (Muslims in the West constantly live on an ever-fluctuating meter of “heightened discomfort,” “extreme discomfort,” and “OMG they’re gonna deport me even though I’m a citizen”) I felt discouraged from asking for it… I didn’t want people to think, “Wow, the only girl here that’s wearing a headscarf is refusing to do the full body scan, I wonder what she has to hide.” I suddenly felt like I had to prove to them that I was normal and just like everyone else.

Also, I got my hijab felt up by a TSA lady, which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced at a security checkpoint before. I DON’T understand why it’s necessary, because your full body scanner allows you to see me practically naked. Despite how “scary” the hijab is to you, I doubt terrorists have developed a radiation-defying strategy to make it hide a bomb like a magic lamp. As a visibly Muslim woman, it’s really uncomfortable when my head is getting felt up in front of literally everyone, especially when it’s carrying a religious symbol that means so much to me and my dignity. At one point, I even got scared she was going to lift up my scarf in front of everyone when she got to the end. Trust me, lady, that really is all my hair. This flimsy piece of fabric is so threatening to you not because of what it’s capable of concealing, but because of what it stands for.

It really, really sucks that Muslims feel the need to collectively make up for the negative rep we’ve been burdened with by the media, that we feel individually responsible to put up a fight against stereotypes everyday of our lives, that we need to feel so different and othered by societies we’ve been born into, and that social perception so often dictates the way we act in public.

I’m immediately reminded of the week when I was in New York attending the Committee on the Status of Women at the United Nations. A colleague and I needed to get to the Empire State Building, so I naturally started typing it into my Google Maps until I stopped myself because I was afraid it’d look suspicious for a Muslim woman in a hijab to be googling the address of the Empire State Building (the government has Americans living in such an extreme state of paranoia and fear that we think a SWAT team is gonna jump out at us out of no where and tackle us to the ground.) It seemed like that was the first time my (non-Muslim, non-Arab) friend was exposed to the experience of being a Muslim in the post-9/11 era, because she was taken aback and said, “It’s really sad that we live in a society where you have to think that way.”

It is.