TORONTO — A 12-year-old passenger and her family are questioning why she was forced to remove her hijab by Air Canada boarding agents after she had already cleared airport security.
Fatima Abdelrahman, a U.S. junior squash player, was travelling with the rest of her team from San Francisco to Toronto for a tournament on Aug. 1. After she had passed airport security and was waiting at her gate to board Flight 758 with her teammates, an Air Canada agent asked her to remove her head covering, she and her sister, Sabreen, told HuffPost Canada over the phone.
“The Air Canada agent told me to remove my scarf because in my passport photo I wasn’t wearing a scarf. It was a long time ago,” Fatima said.
Fatima refused the agent’s request, saying she had to keep her scarf on in public for religious purposes, and asked why she needed to be checked again when she already cleared security. She also told him she had never been asked to remove her hijab at the gate on previous trips.
“He was just like, ‘You have to take it off,’ he didn’t really address the question,” Sabreen said. “Obviously she wasn’t going to take it off in front of him so they … took her to a corner. It wasn’t right in public but it also wasn’t in a closed room.”
A female agent came over and asked her to take her scarf off, despite Fatima requesting they go to a closed area where someone else couldn’t walk in, the 12-year-old said.
“I told her, ‘I feel like this is an open space. Is there like a room?’ and she said, ‘No, no, no, this is fine, no one can see you, take it off.’”
Travelling without family
Fatima said she took her scarf off at that point because she was worried about missing her flight or making her teammates late, but she said the agent just glanced at her hair and didn’t compare her to her passport photo.
Fatima, who was travelling without her family for the first time, told her sister and parents about the incident.
She boarded her flight, and joined her teammates, who were already on the plane, but she said she struggled to find her coach and fellow players.
Sabreen, 19, said her sister, who has been playing squash since she was around five-years-old, was “shaken up,” but had put her focus on her games.
“She’s a strong girl. I think she’s just trying to have a good time...You know, have a good time with her teammates.”
Sabreen posted about the incident on Twitter, where she got a slew of supportive responses.
Air Canada replied to the tweet (although they erroneously referred to Fatima as her daughter instead of her sister) and asked for more information. The 19-year-old told HuffPost Canada that the airline has corresponded privately with the family since then, and forwarded the emails.
“We recognize you and your sister’s disappointment with the identification check that was done for her travel to Canada. Air Canada must comply with Canadian laws and regulations, which require us to compare a passenger’s entire face with the photograph shown on the travel document used prior to boarding the aircraft,” an Air Canada spokesperson wrote to Sabreen.
“Should one of our passengers wear religious or cultural head wear, as many do, we recognize the importance of respecting their right to privacy and any necessary identification check is to be done discretely and in a private area.”
Fatima just returned back yesterday and was not asked to remove her scarf at Pearson Airport, so Air Canada either broke the Canadian law yesterday or was racist on Thursday, which one is it?Magdy Abdelrahman, Fatima's father
Sabreen said that it seemed Air Canada was contradicting their own actions in the email, since her sister’s face was fully visible and could easily be compared to her photo, and she was not escorted to a private area to remove her scarf.
The sisters’ father, Magdy, replied to the email stating that he didn’t think the airline’s explanation made sense, and adding that a similar check hadn’t occurred for the plane ride back.
“Fatima just retuned back yesterday and was not asked to remove her scarf at Pearson Airport, so Air Canada either broke the Canadian law yesterday or was racist on Thursday, which one is it?” Magdy wrote, adding that other people waiting to board in San Francisco were reportedly not asked to take off their sunglasses or hats.
He also asked for an apology for Fatima and her US Squash teammates, as well as changes to Air Canada’s boarding procedures.
‘Seed’ of hate
Additionally, he asked the airline to make a monetary donation to the children of a couple who were killed that weekend in the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Twenty-two people were killed and 24 more were injured in an incident that is being investigated as a hate crime motivated by a hatred of Hispanic immigrants.
“While I obviously am not directly blaming Air Canada for that tragedy, but what your agent did at SFO is a seed for hate-spreading that needs to be stopped at all levels,” he wrote.
The airline replied with a letter addressed to Fatima.
“On behalf of Air Canada, I would like to apologize for letting you down and leaving you disappointed after boarding your flight at the airport in San Francisco… I agree that this could have been handled better and I want to personally assure you that we are using your feedback to ensure improvements are made,” the email says. The email does not address the donation request.
Air Canada did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
HuffPost Canada reached out to WestJet to find out if other carriers had any gate policies that would require a passenger to remove their hijab.
“WestJet complies with the Secure Air Travel Regulations which prior to boarding, requires an air carrier to verify the identity of all guests and determine if they appear to be 18 years of age or older. A guest is not required to remove headwear if their face is completely visible and their age and likeness to their identification can be verified,” spokesperson Morgan Bell told HuffPost via email.
It’s wrong and I don’t think anyone wearing any type of religious headpiece or any type of religious clothing at all should go through a selective type of discrimination.Fatima Abdelrahman
A spokesperson for the TSA said the agency wouldn’t direct an airline at an American airport to do a second screening at the gate, so asking Fatima to take her hijab off wouldn’t have been a TSA directive.
A Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) spokeswoman also said that CATSA doesn’t “require airlines to screen passengers.”
As well, when passengers are going through airport security checkpoints within CATSA’s jurisdiction, they “may keep their head coverings on during the screening process.”
“CATSA knows that there can be sensitive situations when screening head coverings worn for religious or medical reasons. Screening Officers are trained to recognize these situations and ensure that passengers are treated with discretion and sensitivity,” Christine Langlois, CATSA’s communications advisor, said via email.
Took an Air Canada flight back
While Fatima says she’s used to longer experiences during security screenings than the average passenger because of her hijab, this experience was totally new to her and her family.
“It does frustrate me and it really does make me angry,” Fatima said.
Sabreen said the situation made her feel “frustrated” as she’s never experienced anything like it or heard of anyone else going through something similar at the gate, but she is proud of her sister for pushing back.
“I didn’t want her to go through that... There was no reason for her to be overwhelmed or stressed out that she couldn’t find her team ... on her first time travelling,” she said.
Still, there’s a silver lining to the whole experience. Fatima won her matches at the 2019 Battle of the Border, and Team USA pulled out the overall win.
Her team returned to the U.S. after the tournament ended on Sunday on another Air Canada flight, and the sisters said Fatima had no issues flying back.
Fatima just has one message for people about what happened.
“It’s wrong and I don’t think anyone wearing any type of religious headpiece or any type of religious clothing at all should go through a selective type of discrimination.”
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