Fatima Abdelrahman
Fatima Abdelrahman Image Credit: Twitter

Air Canada has left a young girl feeling “degraded” after forcing her to remove her hijab in view of other passengers last month.

12-year-old Californian girl Fatima Abdelrahman, who is part of the U.S. national junior squash team, was waiting to board a flight to Toronto en route to an international tournament on August 1, when an Air Canada staff member approached her and demanded she remove her head scarf as part of a “pre-boarding identification procedure”, according to the Muslim civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The young girl explained that she wears the head scarf for religious reasons and repeatedly requested for a private screening area. However, Air Canada employees denied the request and forced Abdelrahman to publicly remove her hijab in a nearby tunnel.

“Like taking off a limb”

“The Air Canada agent said you need to take that off — he pointed at my scarf — and I said I can’t and he said you have to,” Abdelrahman told CBS outlet KPIX in a video call.

“Taking it off isn’t just like taking off a sock or taking off whatever, it’s almost like taking off a limb. It’s a big deal to me. It’s part of my Muslim identity and who I am as a person. So when someone tells me to casually take it off and hurry up, it’s degrading,” she said.

According to the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA agents, who are typically responsible for screening procedures, are required to accommodate private screening requests.

“At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening,” their website states.

Ehsan Zaffar, a Senior Policy Advisor at the US Department of Homeland Security, reiterated this in a 2013 article on travelers’ rights.

“Muslim women who wear the hijab (head covering or scarf) may ask to be screened privately by a female TSA officer if removal of a head covering is absolutely necessary,” he wrote.

Twitter backlash

The debacle took place at San Francisco airport, after which Abdelrahman’s older sister Sabreen took to Twitter to demand an explanation.

“@AirCanada pls explain why you pulled aside my 12yr old sister for flight 758 making her take off her hijab AT THE GATE?? AFTER she already passed security??” wrote Sabreen. “Thx for ruining her experience as the first U.S. National Team Squash player in Hijab + her first time traveling alone.”

Fatima Abdelrahman sister
Fatima's sister took to Twitter to voice her concerns Image Credit: Twitter

A brief response from Air Canada arrived, which mixed up the two girls’ relationship to one another.

“Hello Sabreen, we are truly sorry to hear about this situation and we certainly understand your concerns. May you please DM us your daughter’s booking reference so we can better follow-up?” they wrote.

“You can’t even get it right. It’s her sister,” one Twitter user replied.

Others did not understand the significance of the hijab, comparing it to removing a ball cap, hat or sunglasses.

“No need to apologize,” a woman tweeted. “I’m glad for this because anyone can hide anything in a hijab. No offence but it’s true.”

Mubin Shaikh, a former security intelligence and counter terrorism operative, wrote: “Give them a free vacation package and make it right. Also: get corporate training, this is wildly unacceptable. Or, get sued. Choose wisely.”

Some added that they would not be flying with Air Canada any longer.

Civil Rights Complaint

According to Canadian publication Toronto Star, the Muslim advocacy organisation CAIR are now launching a formal civil rights complaint against the airline, which is the country’s largest and has been in operation since 1937.

“CAIR-SFBA (San Francisco Bay Area), 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,” said CAIR-SFBA’s Civil Rights & Legal Services Coordinator Ammad Rafiqi, in a statement.

“We hope Air Canada will show responsibility by coming to the table in good-faith to ensure that Fatima is made whole for having her right to privacy violated and the ensuing distress she felt during the trip.”