By Tasmiha Khan
For many Muslim women — and especially those of us who observe hijab, an outward indication of our faith — traveling can feel like an insurmountable ordeal. When I fly, I always schedule in extra time at the airport, because no matter how early I am, the airport staff usually decides I should be “randomly checked.” It happens too frequently for me to consider it random, and often feels like it’s a decision they made because of who I am.
It’s not just Muslim people who observe hijab, either — Muslim people in general are wary of traveling. There have already been numerous airline instances of Muslims being profiled just for being Muslim and appearing foreign by xenophobic standards. It is no surprise that about 48% Muslims said they had experienced at least one instance of dicrimination between 2016 and 2017.
In fact, we’re wary about a lot of things: A 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center shows that Muslims, particularly Muslim women, say it’s getting tougher to be Muslim in the U.S. You needn’t look far to understand why, as among a slew of egregious Islamophobic stances held by the current administration, now-President Trump said in a 2015 campaign statement that he would seek a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment that has been brewing for years. That same year, he threatened to implement a database to track Muslims in the U.S.; and in 2017, he signed an executive order attempting to block travel from several Muslim-majority countries.
So on August 15, when the President supported and even encouraged Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block the two first Muslim women to serve in the United States Congress from entering the country, it felt uncomfortably on brand.
The block was mired with nuances and we can analyze the actions of both sides for days. Among other flags is this: The mere optics of this most recent instance of the federal government asserting power over minority women on an international scale reignites and underscores a deep pain that’s been building within the Muslim community for years.
Trump’s underlying message, like so many other decisions he and his administration have made, is one of division. He’s alienating one group of people, as he does day in and out with any given group. But this particular targeting is also indicative of the specialized vitriol he has held for the Congresswomen since before day one. Tlaib promised to impeach Trump; he shot back with exaggeration and lies. Omar made and apologized for missteps; he exacerbated the issue and spread lies about her. That his anger has seemingly found focus on women of color is one thing; that he seems to hold the highest contempt for two Muslim women of color only makes things worse for those of us already facing a rapid rise in profiling.
We know from the past that smaller sparks light bigger flames of discord. While I already am concerned about traveling using public transportation, the recent block of Tlaib and Omar makes me reflect even further: What if I am randomly stopped midway while I am enroute to my destination? What if I never make it? Will I be singled out just because I am wearing hijab? These questions come with the territory of wearing my headscarf. Now more than ever, attacks on public Muslim figures heighten my apprehension.
And I’m not alone. “When I am checked at security, I get patted down and all that,” Summer*, a college freshman who wears hijab, tells MTV News. But while she admits “the extra checks compared to other people make me mad,” the security checks don’t necessarily make her anxious. “Overall, there is less fear and more anger,” she adds.
Durdana*, a recent college graduate, feels differently. “I avoid flying if I can,” she says. “The ‘security’ is biased towards hijabi women.”
While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that “screening is conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability,” subconscious bias can still creep in. In December 2017, 14 different hijabi women missed their flights from Newark International Airport in New Jersey because they were pulled out of the security line by airport staff; they later alleged that the staff had targeted them specifically because they observed hijab. And while I appreciate that groups like the ACLU have created guidelines advising Muslims of their rights while traveling, the fact that this material needs to exist at all is disheartening in its own way. That we need to take extra caution at all is further proof that things need to change — and that the burden should not fall on us alone to protect ourselves when we’ve done nothing wrong.
Israel barred two Muslim Congresswomen from visiting a particular country, but Trump’s enthusiastic support goes so much further, and speaks to the administration’s larger, concerted attack on their Muslim identity, and the identiities of people like them. To be dismissive and pretend such open discord is an isolated issue magnifies the situation, and gives room for such circumstances to recur. We’ve seen this happen before, and it will happen again. I also know that we can stop it, by speaking up against such blatant profiling. That work will require an effort from all of us.
*Last names have been omitted at interviewees request.