Zainab Merchant was just about to embark on a trip from Boston to Washington, D.C., to speak at an event, when she was pulled aside by a Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) agent for a “a deeper look” that involved publicly searching around Merchant’s groin area.
Zainab — a 27-year-old U.S. citizen, graduate student at Harvard University, and all-around successful founder and editor of the website Zainab Rights — had seemingly nothing to worry about. However, she wasn’t naïve to the realities of “random selection” as a hijab-wearing, visibly Muslim woman at the airport, particularly since Zainab is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans placed on the Terrorist Screening Database, a U.S. government watchlist. This watchlist, a compilation of Muslim Americans or people with Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian backgrounds, singles out innocent travelers as a “Secondary Security Screening Selectee” (SSSS) for nothing more than their religious or ethnic background.
For the past two years, Zainab endured harrowing stories of TSA harassment and unnecessary searching. So, she knew what to expect. She complied with airport regulations, arrived early for her planned flight, and braced herself for the expected: her bags to be pulled aside, her hijab to be pat down, and the entire anxiety-inducing ordeal to take a bit longer than it would for everyone else.
However, she never dreamt of having to explain to two TSA officers— after being patted down in her groin area— that she was on her period and was wearing a menstrual pad. I mean, who would expect that kind of baseless intrusion?
Zainab, fearing that any private inspection might make things even more uncomfortable or perhaps even dangerous for her without public witnesses, was eventually pressured by the TSA agents to go into a private room. The agents threatened to have state troopers intervene if she didn’t follow their orders, and soon after demanded that Zainab pull down her pants and underwear for them to see what was truly hiding between her legs.
“It was just really traumatic. They removed everything, they opened. up everything: my bra, my underwear. They just would hold it up, they would go through it. And I, literally at that moment, I remember I just wanted to melt into a puddle. Because it’s just so humiliating,” Zainab recounts in a video published by the ACLU.
Imagine that: a militant airport force demanding that a woman reveal what is between her legs, ordering her to make even the most private part of herself public in the name of a national security protocol based, undeniably, on racial and religious profiling. Make no mistake, Zainab Merchant was asked to pull down her pants by TSA officers because she was a visibly Muslim woman in an increasingly islamophobic country.
Incredibly traumatized and humiliated, Zainab had no choice but to reveal her bloody pad to the officers. Only then, after a demeaning and intrusive session, did the TSA agents back off. When Zainab asked for their names, the officers covered their badges and walked away.
And they can do that, because they are empowered by a legal structure that allows for the disproportionate targeting, humiliation, and search of people just because they look Muslim. And visibly Muslim women, along with bearded brown men, know that more than most: on any given trip, you are at the mercy of the mood and opinion of whatever TSA officer you are going to come across that day.
As Zainab says, “You never know if you’re ever going to make your flight, if you’re going to miss it, if they’re going to take you in the backroom and ask you questions. Or even if they’re going to arrest you one day. I won’t even be surprised if that happens.”
ACLU reports that, while Zainab has to travel between her home in Florida and graduate school in Boston frequently, she tries to limit her travel as much as possible. The state has effectively limited her movement, her desire for complete self-determination, as a citizen of this country, because of her religious affiliation and ethnicity.
This is the definition of injustice and rights violation.
The ACLU is filing a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of Zainab to figure out why she is being subjected to such an incredibly traumatic process, since the government refuses to tell her. Hopefully this complaint can bring light to the over 700,000 other individuals with “SSSS” stamped on their boarding passes.