Justice

TSA Agents Force Sikh Man To Remove Turban, Make Him Walk Across The Terminal To Put It Back On

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

The badge and TSA logo patch are seen on the uniform of a Transportation Security Administration employee.

A Sikh comedian says security officials forced him to remove his turban at an airport before being told to walk across the terminal with his head uncovered, the second high-profile incident involving airlines and turbans in less than a month.

According to Jasmeet Singh, a Sikh Canadian comedian who also goes by “JusReign,” his attempt to board a flight in a San Francisco-area airport on Sunday was interrupted when agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) asked him to undergo additional screening as he passed through airport security. Singh told ThinkProgress that officials initially just ran a metal detector over his turban and submitted the fabric to a chemical swab test, but that he was eventually escorted into a private room for even more screening.

Once there, Singh says officials asked him to remove his turban — religious headgear worn by many Sikh men — in private. He initially refused, but agreed after a TSA supervisor offered him an ultimatum.

“They told me, ‘Either you take off your turban and we let you get to your flight, or we escort you back to the public area and book you another flight.’” Singh told ThinkProgress. “So I took off my turban, they ran it through the x-ray, and of course nothing happens.”

Having complied with the request, Singh then asked if security officials could provide him with a mirror so he could reapply his turban in private. But TSA agents refused, suggesting he walk across the terminal to a public restroom — his head still uncovered — and use a mirror there.

“The attitude I got from TSA agents was, ‘Listen, we kind of did our part. We’ve pretty much done our job here,’” he said, explaining that appearing in public without a turban is “similar to being undressed as a Sikh man.”

“A lot of Sikh men hold a lot of value to the turban,” he added. “It’s a representation of our ideals, our strength, our courage. When you’re asked to remove it, that’s kind of insensitive on their part — especially after I’d already cooperated.”

Singh noted that he ultimately was willing to walk to the restroom uncovered, but that many Sikh men wouldn’t be so eager.

“It’s a lack of sensitivity and a lack of respect — that’s what I find really concerning,” he said.

Singh is one of two high-profile Sikh entertainers to endure a frustrating dispute over turbans at an airport this month. On February 8, Sikh American actor, model, and jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia was barred from boarding an Aero Mexico flight after he refused to remove his turban in public for airline agents. Aero Mexico initially tried to rebook him on another flight from Mexico to New York, but Ahluwalia refused, demanding the company publicly apologize and agree to provide instruction for their staff on Sikhs and religious headgear in general. The airline eventually complied two days later, issuing a statement in which they apologized for “unfortunate experience [Ahluwalia] had with one of our security guards.”

Singh said on Tuesday that American TSA agents should undergo similar educational training here in the United States.

“I think there is a lack of education,” he said. “If there was more education for how to deal with the situation, it could go a long way. Simple little fixes, like adding a mirror to a private screening.”

The encounter also comes as incidents of airport profiling — especially those directed at American Muslims and Sikhs — appear to be increasing as the United States grapples with an unprecedented wave of Islamophobia. In December, MSNBC commentator and Sikh American Valerie Kaur was asked to show fellow airline passengers her breast pump to prove that she wasn’t a terrorist, and a group of Muslim and Sikh men are currently suing American Airlines after the flight crew allegedly removed them from a plane for unspecified reasons.

“This kind of thing was common after 9/11,” Singh said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks. “I feel like that fear and paranoia is resurfacing again, especially with all the inflammatory rhetoric that’s being thrown around and the hatred is being spewed.”

UPDATE FEB 23, 2016 5:49 PM

TSA spokesperson Bruce Anderson sent the following statement to ThinkProgress, which provided context for the screening process but did not specifically address the issue of providing a mirror for Sikh men who undergo additional screening.

“During the process of a standard security screening at the TSA checkpoint in San Francisco International Airport, the equipment registered an alarm and contractor screeners followed proper procedures and conducted secondary screening in a private room.

"All TSA officers and contracted screeners are trained to treat all passengers with dignity and respect, and receive periodic training regarding cultural and religious sensitivities. When additional screening is needed that requires the removal of religious apparel, our officers offer private screening and request the passenger remove the item.

"In 2007, TSA revised its screening procedures for head coverings based on discussions with representatives of the Sikh community. All members of the traveling public are permitted to wear head coverings (whether religious or otherwise) through security checkpoints. All persons wearing head coverings may be subject to additional security screening, which may include an officer-conducted or traveler self-conducted pat-down.

"TSA does this to ensure that prohibited items or weapons are not concealed beneath any type of clothing and brought onto an aircraft. This policy covers all headwear and is not directed at any one particular item or group. TSA recommends that passengers remove non-formfitting headwear before proceeding through the security checkpoint, but recognizes that passengers may be unable or unwilling to remove items for religious, medical, or other reasons. In that case, they should expect to undergo additional screening protocols.

"Additionally, religious knives, swords and other objects are not permitted through the security checkpoint and must be packed in checked baggage. TSA recommends that passengers inform the TSA officer if they have religious, cultural or ceremonial items that may require special handling."

Share Update