#FlyingWhileMuslim isn’t just a hashtag on Twitter—the struggle is real, especially for women like me who wear a hijab.
But there’s a double standard when it comes to searching and screening women who wear religious head coverings at airports: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is far stricter with Muslims than Orthodox Jewish women or Christian nuns.
Every single time I’ve flown out of Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport, since 2011, TSA agents have pulled me aside to “randomly” check for explosives. In most cases, I was subjected to an extensive 20-minute pat-down and swabbing. Agents also searched my bags in front of dozens of onlookers. It was humiliating and degrading, and after the first few incidents, I couldn’t hide my irritation anymore.
“Random check this time, again, right?” I’d say whenever an agent picked me out of a long line of travelers. Although most were professional while they patted me down and handled my belongings, I was sick of feeling so exposed in front of strangers. I was sick of feeling like a dangerous person.
The whole process took forever, so I always felt bad for everyone standing in line behind me. Fellow travelers would sigh loudly when I entered the full-body scanner, knowing that my presence would increase their wait time. They were annoyed, but I couldn’t blame them because I was annoyed, too.
The first thing a TSA agent asks me before checking my hijab is whether I’m hiding a sharp object underneath it. The question inevitably scares onlookers, their eyes either wide with fear or rolling in disgust—but always fixed on me.
“No sharp objects, just my hair,” I’d shoot back. The agent would usually ignore my comment or reply, “ It’s just my job, ma’am.”
I’ve often thought about removing my hijab while flying, but my firm belief in religious freedom and deep respect for Islam gave me second thoughts. While brainstorming various ways to make the travel process smoother, I decided to wear a colorful sweater emblazoned with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Surely, I’d look less threatening and therefore be less of a target—but no such luck.
Another tactic I tried was covering my hair with a hoodie, but that also failed miserably. After a TSA agent insisted I remove it, I told him I couldn’t for religious reasons, but he only repeated his order: “Take your hoodie off, ma’am.”
Feeling pressured and helpless, I slid it off, and entered the scanner. As I walked towards the gate, tears ran down my face. I was completely stripped of my rights.
Then, one day in 2014, I was standing in line at O’Hare when I saw an Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a long black skirt, long-sleeved shirt, and black hat covering her hair. I remember wondering whether she would get chosen for a random check.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, she was treated just like everyone else, and went off to her gate. Meanwhile, I was pulled aside for a 20-minute pat-down. It was an aha moment.
Although I still had questions about the unfair way TSA agents handled Muslims wearing hijabs versus Orthodox Jewish women and Christian nuns, I was mostly relieved to have found a solution for the delays and humiliation I experienced while flying. So, I immediately called my childhood Orthodox Jewish friend who took me to a tznius (“modesty”) clothing store in Chicago, where I bought a hat.
Feeling hopeful, I wore my new hat and Disney sweater the next time I flew. But a wave of disappointment washed over me, as I saw a TSA agent approaching. My plan hadn’t worked.
“Don’t take off your shoes; please go to the pre-check line.”
At first, I stood frozen, thinking the agent was speaking to the person behind me; but then he looked me in the eye and motioned to the pre-check line. I entered the scanner without having to remove my hat, take off my shoes, or even take out my laptop.
Two weeks later, I was flying with my mother. Whereas I wore my hat, she wore a hijab. My mother refuses to wear a hat despite my pleas because she has a strong attachment to her hijab, and is willing to deal with the delays and invasion of privacy. Nowadays, I pass through security in the blink of an eye, and end up waiting for my mother on the other side.
But I understand her reluctance. Initially, I also had mixed feelings about my decision to wear a hat: Although it solved my travel headaches, I felt guilty for “cheating” my way out. Ultimately, though, I concluded that all three Abrahamic religions have the same views on female modesty. Wearing a hat or hijab is meant to represent said modesty, so whether I look like an Orthodox Jewish woman or a Muslim woman, I’m at peace with my decision as long as I cover up.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."