The first time I took a plane by myself, I was 12 years old. It was a big deal because, up until that point, my parents hadn’t let me take so much as a city bus alone. Yet somehow they allowed me to travel all the way to Minneapolis from my home of Ottawa, Canada to visit my aunt for the summer.
It was 2003, shortly after the 9/11 travel restrictions became the norm. I wasn’t old enough to grasp the full implications of extra security. I wasn’t afraid, not even when the border agents asked me question after question about my upbringing. I found it silly that they kept asking me where I went to school, or what my school’s telephone number was, or how many friends I had. It was shortly after I had just started wearing the hijab, but I didn’t link the oddly specific questions to my faith—to me it was just a part of traveling.
I’m 25 years old now, and because family members began working overseas, I’ve gotten to travel extensively. I’ve gotten good at the practical stuff that makes traveling run smoothly—showing up to airports early, packing efficiently, staying hydrated. But the more frequently I traveled I felt more and more anxious before flights in a way that didn’t make sense considering my admirable prep routine. I’m not afraid of heights or turbulence, but I would find myself sleepless and physically ill for much of my journey. Not wanting to confront the root of this problem and all its implications, it took me a couple of years to realize my anxieties were directly related to the climate around traveling while visibly Muslim.
This anxiety makes sense given our country’s rampant Islamophobia; recent events of Muslims getting kicked of planes for doing nothing at all have made me realize my paranoia is not unfounded. In late July, Jiva Akbor was on her way to Spain from Britain when her seatmate, Beverly, noticed Jiva writing “Allah” in a text message. Apparently, using the Arabic word for God was enough for Beverly to be alarmed and notify a flight attendant. Beverly was given the option to either get off the plane or return to her seat. Jiva saw this as an opportunity to clear the air with Beverly, and by the end of the flight, they had exchanged numbers and befriended one another.
The feel-good story posted originally on Jiva’s Facebook went viral. And while I noticed many sharing the story of a racist turning a corner as heartwarming, I was frightened imagining myself in Jiva’s place. The flight attendant in question who was praised for not kicking Jiva off the plane still couldn’t protect her from sitting next to someone who could have easily been a violent racist. Ultimately, Jiva had to prove her humanity regardless of the rare positive outcome.
Usually, when Muslims are seen as suspicious on planes, their stories don’t end as well as Jiva’s. A recent influx of stories show Muslims can be kicked off flights for sweating, asking for water, speaking Arabic, and having a long name. In all these cases, those booted off planes were at the mercy of their flight attendants’ judgment. While it’s easy to write off these instances as the racism of individual airline workers, Southwest Airlines defended their employee’s decision to kick off a Somali passenger who asked to switch seats (they’re the same airline who kicked off a passenger for speaking Arabic).
I love being Muslim, but it’s certainly not all that I am. Still, it’s jarring to fully accept that for some people it’s the only part of my identity worth noting. My reluctance to face the truth also came from not wanting to victimize myself. While I’ve faced discrimination, overall my identity as a Muslim woman has provided me with more positive interactions than not.
So as I neared my mid-twenties I began wondering: Was I going to begin letting paranoia get the best of me? The more I traveled, the more I was faced with this reality. When passing through customs or crossing borders, I get asked questions not far off from the ones I was asked back in 2003—only adulthood has gifted me awareness of what the consequences could be. I have nothing to feel guilty about, but I’m meant to feel like I should be guilty of something.
While most airlines have delivered canned statements with trite apologies and vague promises to “investigate” individual cases, according to Federal Aviation Regulations they can kick off whatever passengers they see fit. Any crew member with an axe to grind has the power to kick off a passenger if they wish and face no consequences. According to the Council on American Islamic Relations, since the Paris attacks there’s been an unprecedented spike in backlash against Muslims in America, paired with how Americans generally view Muslims unfavorably. This isn’t good news for people who look like me.
Ultimately, the discrimination Muslims face on planes is just one of the battles a Muslim or Muslim looking person might face every day. A 2015 study conducted by Bristol University found that Muslim men in the UK were 76% less likely to get a job than their non-Muslim counterparts based on their Muslim-sounding names alone. Just recently, multiple French towns banned Muslim women from covering at the beach, leading to the disturbing images, which quickly went viral, of a Muslim woman being forced to remove her clothes in Nice. All the studies and stories that point towards harder times for Muslims in the West make me wonder exactly how much worse things will have to get before they eventually get better.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of CAIR-Arizona and a founder of Hate Hurts, a website that highlights the global bigotry against Muslims and other ethnic minorities, says the recent spike in Muslims being kicked off flights is a direct result of an anti-Muslim climate. With the constant flow of normalized Islamophobia in the media, public opinion is bound to be influenced. “What we are seeing here is the output of this constant fear-mongering, and culture of 'see-something, say something,'” Siddiqi told me via email. “The airline staff are complying with the accusers most of the time.”
While there’s not much Muslim passengers can legally do in the event of being kicked off, Siddiqi suggests documenting exactly what’s happening. “One of the biggest issues we see is under-reporting of incidents,” she says. According to Siddiqi, tracking the incidents is key for long-term change: “If we are able to show a pattern of abuse, then this will go a long way toward rectifying the situation in the long term.”
My most recent international flight away from home was this past June, which also happened to be the month of Ramadan, a time where Muslims everywhere reaffirm their faith. Packing my carry-on, I wanted to bring a pocket-sized Quran to read on my flights—but after going over all the ways that could be a bad idea, I quickly decided not to. Would a passenger ask to switch seats or call me a threat? Would a border agent ask me more questions than usual? Would they think I was a terrorist?
Deciding it wasn’t worth the headache, it hit me then just how bad things were. I was too scared to engage in anything that would give away my faith more than my hijab does. While the eternal optimist in me wants to believe things will get better, it’s clear that until there’s a fundamental change in how the Western world views Muslims, my paranoia will never be unfounded.
Sarah Hagi is a Canadian essayist and culture writer.