TORONTO — An American Muslim civil rights group has filed a formal complaint against Air Canada on behalf of a 12-year-old who was forced to remove her hijab while waiting to board a flight in California.
Fatima Abdelrahman, who was travelling to Toronto from San Francisco on Aug. 1 with her U.S. junior national teammates for a squash tournament, had already cleared airport security when Air Canada boarding agents forced her to remove her hijab in a public area.
The airline later told the family they were just following identification procedures, but other airlines as well as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority told HuffPost Canada that headwear would not normally be removed if a passenger’s full face was visible.
“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 said in an interview with HuffPost at the time.
The San Francisco chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has now filed a complaint on behalf of Abdelrahman and her family, saying the airline’s response has been inadequate.
“CAIR-SFBA, along with our client, are committed to ensuring that in the future individuals hoping to travel with Air Canada or other airlines are not subject to differential treatment based on their religious beliefs and how they choose to observe their faith,” Ammad Rafiqi, civil rights and legal services co-ordinator, said in a press release earlier this month.
HuffPost Canada reached out to Air Canada for comment but has not received a response back.
When the family first reached out to the airline, they said they were seeking an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and sincere apology, along with confirmation that steps were being taken to prevent something similar.
We want to make sure that this gets written down so that it doesn't happen to another person or another family.Sabreen Abdelrahman
The airline eventually responded that screening procedures have been changed, and wrote a letter to Fatima apologizing for “letting her down.” But frustrated with what they perceived as the airline not taking the incident seriously, the family turned to CAIR for help.
“It’s just a matter of holding them accountable in some form along with obviously the policy changes that we want to see,” said Sabreen, Fatima’s older sister, who was the first to reach out to the airline. She said the family has nothing to gain by going after the airline publicly.
“We want to make sure that this gets written down so that it doesn’t happen to another person or another family. That’s the end goal,” said the 19-year-old.
Fatima and her family are asking for monetary damages for emotional pain and suffering, as well as copies of new and old versions of several Air Canada policy documents.
“There’s no confirmation they changed anything in the policy,” said Rafiqi. The “changes” Air Canada said it made were already provisions in Canadian and American law, such as not requiring people to remove religious headgear during gate screening, he said.
Magdy Abdelrahman, Fatima’s father, emphasized that the family has a comfortable life and doesn’t want or need compensation — this is about hitting a corporation where it will be compelled to take action.
The letter asks for policy changes that prevent discrimination, reprimand of the employees involved in Abdelrahman’s case, cultural competency training for employees, as well as a formal written apology acknowledging discrimination of the now 13-year-old.
Teaching employees why some Muslims choose to wear the hijab or grow a beard, would help them know how to do their jobs without infringing on anyone’s rights, suggested Rafiqi.
“Obviously we’re not asking for Muslims to get differential or special treatment but we know that Muslims are targeted as a group and generally face higher incidences of discrimination. But what we hope is that in advancing the rights of Muslim-Americans flying, you’re advancing the rights of all Americans, really, of all people flying into and outside the United States,” said Rafiqi.
Online abuse directed at family
The complaint letter claims the airline has not addressed its violations of U.S. anti-discrimination laws, nor taken responsibility for how the incident has affected Abdelrahman.
People have called Fatima a terrorist, and applauded Air Canada for singling her out, said Magdy. The airline’s silence on the matter emboldens those creating online abuse against his family.
“Just reading the comments [on media coverage] and reading [reactions] from people who are ignorant ... I’m trying to prevent my daughters from thinking this way but we are losing our sense of belonging,” said Magdy.
Rafiqi highlighted the strength of Fatima and her family in coming forward despite the intense public scrutiny, and especially when the teen’s athletic accomplishments with the U.S. national squash team should be in the spotlight.
″[This is] something that should be celebrated generally for all families, but also for the sport in general, to have female athletes be prominent, to be taking a step up, but instead this fiasco has taken away from it.”
Fatima has a message too.
“I want people to realize that wearing the hijab … it’s not something that is forced. It is something that is our choice and it’s very important to us. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our daily life.”
CAIR has asked Air Canada to respond by Oct. 4. If their concerns are not adequately addressed, the group and the family say they’ll explore other avenues, including legal action.