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Air Canada forced 12-year-old remove her hijab

25th Oct 2019
Air Canada forced 12-year-old remove her hijab

(Photo: Adrian Pingstone/WikiCommons)

Elham Asaad Buaras

A 12-year-old girl who was forced to remove her hijab in public by Air Canada employees despite already passing through security has filed a complaint.

Fatima Abdelrahman, a player on the US national junior squash team, was travelling with her teammates at San Francisco International Airport on August 1 when she was stopped by Air Canada employees before boarding her flight en route to Toronto for a tournament.

Three employees told the young Californian to remove the hijab because she wasn’t wearing one in her passport photo, claiming it was pre-boarding identification protocol. According to a letter of complaint sent to Air Canada officials on September 20, when Fatima asked for a private screening area, as required by law, she was refused and forced to expose her hair in public.

“The Air Canada agent looked at my picture, looked at me, and said, ‘These don’t connect. You need to take it off’ (as) he pointed at (my hijab). I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He said, ‘No, you need to!’ I said, ‘No, I can’t, religious purposes,’” said the Santa Clara native.

She asked female Air Canada agents if she could remove her hijab in a private area. Instead, they led her to a tunnel where passengers were boarding a flight and forced her to remove the hijab, well within the view of passerbys.

Fatima says a female agent told her, ‘Just quickly take it off, so you can board.’ Ashamed and humiliated Fatima obliged and was able to board her flight.

“So I quickly took it off, didn’t really know what to do. All my teammates had passed, my coach had passed. I had no idea I was alone. So I quickly took it off. She barely glanced (at the passport) and then up at me. And said ‘Ok, hurry up! Hurry up! Go grab your stuff!’” Fatima said.

Fatima’s older sister Sabreen Abdelrahman tweeted about the incident on August 1 where it went viral and caught national attention. ‘@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?’ she wrote.

‘Thx for ruining her experience as the first US National Team Squash player in Hijab + her first time travelling alone,’ she added. Air Canada responded to the tweet with a standard complaint reply saying: ‘We are truly sorry to hear about this situation and we certainly understand your concerns’ and asked for Fatima’s flight details.

America’s first hijab-wearing Congresswoman tweeted her support for Fatima. ‘Standing in solidarity with Fatima and @CAIRSFBA. There’s no excuse for religious discrimination,’ wrote Ilhan Omar. For Fatima, her greatest grievance is that she wasn’t given a private screening room though she repeatedly asked for one and it’s required by State and Federal Law.

‘First of all, the hijab doesn’t cover my face. So even though in the passport photo I was not wearing the hijab, you can still see my face and see that it is the same person,’ Fatima said.

‘I saw someone wearing a hat, but they weren’t asked to remove it. Not trying comparing the scarf and a hat. But still, it does cover your head. So why was I asked to remove it, and not them? So yeah, I did feel discriminated against,’ she added.

The San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a complaint in a letter to Air Canada on September 20 stating the airline’s employees violated Federal and State laws by demanding the youngster remove her hijab.

‘This experience not only went against Ms Fatima’s reasonable request to be able to adhere to her religious beliefs but also left her feeling angry and humiliated,’ the complaint says. The advocacy group is seeking the airline order cultural competency training for employees and policy changes prohibiting discrimination.

It also seeks monetary damages for emotional distress, a formal written apology, and a reprimand of employees involved.

In its letter, CAIR says that an Air Canada customer service manager emailed the family on August 19 to say the airline had updated its boarding policies so agents need not remove religious head coverings to conduct identity screenings. But the organisation says that the response failed to address the emotional distress inflicted upon Fatima or violations of anti-discrimination laws.

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