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12-Year-Old Girl Forced To Take Off Her Hijab At Air Canada Gate


Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images; Sabreen_magdy/Twitter

Fatima Abdelrahman is a 12 year-old nationally ranked squash player.

She was chosen to compete on the U.S. junior squash team, an honor that sent her to Toronto, Canada.

But her joy over her accomplishment was spoiled by an Air Canada gate agent.


As HuffPost Canada reported, Fatima passed through airport security in San Francisco, California, but when she got to the Air Canada gate, the male gate agent told her to remove her hijab before she could board the plane.

"The Air Canada agent told me to remove my scarf because in my passport photo I wasn't wearing a scarf. [The passport photo] was [taken] a long time ago."

Fatima explained she had to keep her hijab on in public for religious reasons, and asked why she needed to be checked again after already clearing official airport security. Fatima had never been asked to remove her hijab at the gate on previous trips.

Fatima's sister Sabreen said:

"He was just like, 'You have to take it off,' he didn't really address the question."
"Obviously she wasn't going to take it off in front of him so they … took her to a corner. It wasn't right in public but it also wasn't in a closed room."

A female Air Canada agent arrived.

12 year-old Fatima said:

"I told her, 'I feel like this is an open space. Is there like a room?' and she said, 'No, no, no, this is fine, no one can see you, take it off'."

After Fatima removed her hijab for fear of missing her flight and not being able to find her team, she said gate agents glanced at her hair and did not compare her with her passport photo. She was then allowed to board the plane and join her teammates and coaches.

The 12 year-old was traveling without her parents or sister for the first time and relayed what happened to them as soon as she was able.

Her sister Sabreen said:

"She's a strong girl. I think she's just trying to have a good time...You know, have a good time with her teammates."

Sabreen shared the incident on Twitter to ask Air Canada why they took the actions they did with her younger sister.

Air Canada responded to Sabreen's Twitter post (misidentifying Fatima as her daughter instead of her sister).

Sabreen said all future correspondence from Air Canada was through private emails.

Air Canada wrote:

"We recognize you and your sister's disappointment with the identification check that was done for her travel to Canada. Air Canada must comply with Canadian laws and regulations, which require us to compare a passenger's entire face with the photograph shown on the travel document used prior to boarding the aircraft."
"Should one of our passengers wear religious or cultural head wear, as many do, we recognize the importance of respecting their right to privacy and any necessary identification check is to be done discretely and in a private area."

However Fatima's full face was visible.

Only her hair was obscured by her hijab. She was also not taken to a private area even though she asked to be several times.




The girls' father Magdy disputed Air Canada's explanation as the same airline did not require Fatima remove her hijab at Pearson airport for her return flight to the USA.

He wrote to Air Canada:

"Fatima just returned back yesterday and was not asked to remove her scarf at Pearson Airport, so Air Canada either broke the Canadian law [at Pearson] or was racist on Thursday, which one is it?"

He added that other passengers were not required to remove hats or sunglasses that obscured their faces. Magdy asked Air Canada for an apology for Fatima and her U.S. Squash teammates, as well as changes to Air Canada's boarding procedures.

Magdy Abdelrahman also asked Air Canada to donate money to help the victims of the domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas.

He explained the reason for the donation request as:

"While I obviously am not directly blaming Air Canada for that tragedy, what your agent did at [San Francisco International Airport] is a seed for hate-spreading that needs to be stopped at all levels."

Air Canada responded with a message addressed to Fatima:

"On behalf of Air Canada, I would like to apologize for letting you down and leaving you disappointed after boarding your flight at the airport in San Francisco… I agree that this could have been handled better and I want to personally assure you that we are using your feedback to ensure improvements are made."

No mention was made of the donation request in their response.

But was Air Canada following Canadian law as they originally claimed?

A check with another airline revealed no such policy.

"WestJet complies with the Secure Air Travel Regulations which prior to boarding, requires an air carrier to verify the identity of all guests and determine if they appear to be 18 years of age or older. A guest is not required to remove headwear if their face is completely visible and their age and likeness to their identification can be verified."

A check with the United States' Transportation Security Administration also contradicted the Air Canada claim.

And the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) said airlines are not required to screen passengers under Canadian law. That responsibility falls to airport security before passengers gain access to gate areas.

According to CATSA, under their policies:

"Travelers may keep their head coverings on during the screening process."
"CATSA knows that there can be sensitive situations when screening head coverings worn for religious or medical reasons. Screening Officers are trained to recognize these situations and ensure that passengers are treated with discretion and sensitivity."

Fatima won her matches despite the incident.

About the problems with Air Canada, the 12 year-old said:

"It does frustrate me and it really does make me angry."

Her sister Sabreen added:

"I didn't want her to go through that... There was no reason for her to be overwhelmed or stressed out that she couldn't find her team ... on her first time traveling."

The book Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is available here.

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