UPDATE: Waris Ahluwalia boarded a flight from Mexico City to New York on Wednesday morning (Feb. 10) after Aeromexico officials agreed to better train their employees on the religious significance of the Sikh turban and to spare Sikh fliers unnecessarily intrusive searches, reported the Sikh Coalition, which worked with Ahluwalia on the agreement with the airline.
(RNS) Sikh actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia, who was kept off a flight because of his turban, is demanding that Aeromexico agree to train its security staff on religious sensitivity. And he says he will stay put in Mexico City until the airline does.
Ahluwalia was boarding a flight home on Monday (Feb. 8) to New York City, where he had appearances scheduled for Fashion Week, when he was told to publicly remove his turban for a security screening — even though he had not triggered a metal detector.
“I’m afraid if I leave, this will happen to someone else. I can’t in good conscience allow that,” Ahluwalia told CNN on Tuesday. “So I’m here until we can have a dialogue about training their staff and about education.”
Ahluwalia — who played a character forced by police to remove his turban in a Spike Lee film, and who in 2013 became the first Sikh model to be featured in an ad for Gap Inc. — had been selected for a secondary security screening before his Aeromexico flight. Such selections are ostensibly conducted at random, though Ahluwalia says he is chosen often.
Ahluwalia said he offered to let the screening be done in a private room.
“That is not something that I would do in public,” Ahluwalia told the NY Daily News. “That’s akin to asking someone to take off their clothes.”
After denying his request, airline officials told him to book a flight with another carrier, he said.
Instead, the actor posted a photo on Instagram, sparking outrage among Sikhs and South Asians. Though Aeromexico did then offer a replacement flight that he could board without removing his turban, Ahluwalia refused.
“It’s not just about me,” Ahluwalia told The Cut. “It’s not just about Sikhs. If what happens to me today results in a policy change so that no one else has to go through this, then it was worth it.”
Although the incident took place in Mexico, the airline followed guidelines and practices set by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration because it was a flight to a U.S. airport.
And while the TSA has worked with Sikh groups to present security officials with trainings on Sikhism and sensitivity to religious clothing, it’s far from universal.
A Sikh man and three Muslim friends sued American Airlines in January for allegedly ordering them off a flight for making the crew feel “uneasy”; last year, a Sikh woman said she was made to show her breast pump to an “alarmed and angered” gate agent before she was allowed to board her flight.
Turbans have not been listed by the TSA as an item requiring extra screening since a 2007 policy change. But the TSA says body scanners cannot see through turbans, and agents are authorized to conduct secondary-screening measures of “persons wearing head coverings, loose fitting or bulky garments … which may include a pat-down … in a private screening area.”
In 2012, the Sikh Coalition developed the Fly Rights app for air travelers to report incidents of bias or misconduct by airport officials. “The TSA is in deep denial about the problem of screening discrimination at American airports,” the organization said in a statement at the time.
(Aysha Khan reports for RNS)