Airport security force Muslim woman to pull down underwear

28th Sep 2018
Airport security force Muslim woman to pull down underwear

(Photos: American Civil Liberties Union/ previous TSA search on Zainab Merchant posted by Zainab on Facebook)

Aqila Mumthaz

An American Muslim woman was stopped at the airport and a security officer demanded she pulls down her pants and underwear as they wanted to take a “deeper look” although she explained she was on her period and wearing a menstrual pad.

Zainab Merchant regularly catches a plane from Boston and gets stopped by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents. They would pull her aside, thoroughly look through her bags and subject her to additional pat-downs and screenings.


However, in August the security checks left her astonished. The TSA officer publicly patted her down in the groin area and announced that she needed to take a “deeper look”. At first, Zainab resisted, telling the two TSA officers she was on her period and wearing a menstrual pad and insisted the checks be done in public.

The TSA officials resisted and said if she didn’t comply, state troopers would intervene.  She was not allowed to call her lawyer and was forced into the private screening. In the room, she was commanded to pull down her pants and underwear.

Terrified she complied and revealed her bloodied menstrual pad. She then asked for the two officers names and badge numbers to report her terrible experience. The TSA officers covered their badges and walked away, Zainab said.

Zainab, a grad student at Harvard University, award-winning writer and editor for her page Zrights and a mother of three told The Muslim News, “It all began 2 years ago, during our trip to Vancouver, [Canada] in September 2016, which included domestic flights and crossing the border via car. Both entailed searches, and in one layover I was not allowed to board the flight. It started then and has always been going on ever since.”

She has endured an unimaginable amount of degradation, humiliation and embarrassment for the past two years, each trip as bad as the last one or only made worse. She said, “I have faced missed flights, being pulled out of a flight, a team of dogs searching me, an explosives unit of armed men, my devices being taken for long periods of time, my photos being searched without my hijab, my children being separated from me and meant to go through screening by themselves (her son was 2 at the time), all my bags searched (a lot of items go missing in my luggage like clothing, and I have a note in my bag that says TSA searched items), if I have carryons, all items are removed and searched one by one; so I’ve learned to travel light and sometimes that means travelling with nothing and buy things at the destination to avoid public humiliation and pat downs for secondary screening; while TSA officers (men) stand and watch. I’ve also seen some [officers] make disgusting faces that violate everything in me, and of course, private screenings where they made me take off my underwear.”

Her husband is also on the watch list but doesn’t go through as much as she does. However, she says, “It hurts him to see me go through this…” and although he used to have a “let a sleeping dog sleep” mentality, seeing us go through such demeaning instances, has changed his perspective.” Now he is her biggest supporter and encourages her to speak out and go public about all this because he has seen it firsthand. The experience at the airport has also affected her

When asked about how her children were coping she replied, “My children are very traumatised. In the last trip, two officers followed us throughout the airport after our security check, all the way to the boarding gate, even to the toilet, and they kept asking me why are police following us and if we were going to jail.”

She said she isn’t treated this way in any other country.

“Flights outside of America don’t make us go through this, and immigration is never an issue to places like Canada or elsewhere. However, some flights within Canada do put us on the SSSS (secondary security screening selectee) but they’ve explained it’s because they share US airspace and has nothing to do with them. However, their secondary checks are almost non-existent and it’s a very easy process. Once in the UK the agent didn’t do the security check and let us go through the scanners normally. We were afraid that he didn’t stamp anything and we would have difficulty boarding the flight and didn’t want to miss an international flight as we had to get home to our kids. He laughed at us and said the SSSS is only an American issue and they don’t believe in it.

Hearing about her plight the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contacted Zainab and filed a formal complaint on her behalf with the Department of Homeland Security, calling for an end to her being singled out during her travels. She has received much-needed support, strength and legal assistance from the people at ACLU and those in its community.

Yet, with all the support, the US Government refuses to tell her why it keeps happening, the standard reply being: “We cannot confirm or deny that I’ve been placed on a watch list.” At first, she thought it was because of her writings, or her travels to different Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Iraq, “but many people do that and have never been targeted,” she said. “I do believe a large part is that I am Muslim or fit a certain profile, and after speaking out I’ve realized that many hijab donning Muslim women share this humiliation, and have been suffering silently.”  Well, no more, she affirmed.

Her message to others is to “never be afraid to speak out against an injustice happening to you or anyone else. Injustice should never be tolerated no matter who is doing it because all it takes for evil to triumph is good people doing nothing”.

“Never underestimate the power you have, and the power in people who stand up for the right thing. We think we are a small entity, but we have immense power when we unite and stand together. Always be united and look for each other as if they are your own. There is a big lesson in this for me too, and I hope I can also be there for others as others have been for me,” she said defiantly.

After a lot of campaigning by Zainab, a friend invited her to a meeting between ACLU and the security services. On September 10 Zainab met the Customs Border Protection (CBP), FBI and Transport Security Administration (TSA). She briefed them on her experiences asked them why it was happening to her and what actions could she possibly take to prevent this happening in future. Zainab had already applied for redress, reached out to members of Congress and filed a formal complaint via the ACLU. She added that the two years of abuse at the airports have taken a psychological toll on her and her family. “How can you guys, people that are supposed to protect us, subject us to this kind of treatment?” she asked. Zainab also told the meeting that one of the TSA officers in Orlando said to her that “travellers who are taking flights have no rights.”

The CBU, FBI and TSA agree to look into the matter and were not able to answer why she was being abused and targeted.

Philip Brown, Executive Director at Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, responded: “If it comes to our attention at the airport we will try and direct it, in such cases to the TSA or the CBP … in my experience at the Orlando airport we are very effective.”

Another officer commented, “For international flights, if you have an issue when you come in you can ask to speak to a supervisor on the spot or a chief on duty. At the very least they will have to push it up the chain of command to me. So if you feel that there is something not right bring it to our attention on the spot Don’t wait till you leave. We have a system in place where they have to send it to me. You can always ask for a supervisor or for a chief on duty who are required to push it up.”

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