Being Profiled

My recent experiences traveling back from the Middle East reaffirm my belief that not only does profiling fail to protect us, but it can actually lead to the resentment and marginalization that can feed extremism and violence. I recently had the privilege of visiting Jordan and Turkey over the winter break. However, once arriving at the airport in Istanbul to return to the US via a direct flight to JFK, my pleasant vacation went sour fast.

It began as I stepped into the check-in line wearing a long brown skirt, sweater, and purple silk headscarf. Immediately, the private security hired by either the airline or the airport asked for my passport, as it does with all passengers. Then the questions began: “Where have you been? Where did you stay? Who were you with? Why did you come?” After explaining that I began my vacation in Jordan before arriving in Turkey, they began asking why I was in Jordan, where I stayed, who I stayed with, and if I had any receipts. Then, having looked at my passport, they began asking about previous trips, specifically about trips made to the United Arab Emirates (or Dubai). The security agent asked more and more personal questions, eventually even asking for my student ID card to prove I was really a student. He then took my passport and ID card and went to consult with another man and fingers were pointed my way as they spoke softly out of earshot. Then, he walked away with my passport to make copies in a backroom. Upon return, he gave me back my passport and I checked-in. However, another security agent listened over my shoulder as I spoke to the airline attendant at the desk. Then, the security agent recorded my bag check numbers onto a copy of my passport. No other passenger was given this ‘treatment’.

Having check-in, I made my way through passport control without any questions or problems. Then at 11:15am, it was time to go to the waiting lounge for my flight to New York. This meant going through one last security check (baggage x-ray and metal detector). However, before I even got to the metal detector, again, my passport was taken way and another small conference of security guards took place out of earshot. Why was I so suspicious? What had I done? I then placed my bags, coat, and shoes on the x-ray belt and walked through the metal detector—silence. I did not set of the detector and my bags did set off any alarms at the x-ray machine. I then walked five steps and a security agent asked for my passport. “She has it,” I said, pointing to a security woman a few feet away. The security agent quickly ushered me to a table for my bags to be searched by hand (despite the x-ray agents giving my bag the all clear). I thought, “Fine, other people have had to do this.” But after searching my bag and making me sign something in Turkish that they refused to translate, I began walking away with my bag and passport, but with a mustered a smile trying to understand that they were just doing their job. But they were still not satisfied. “No! You must come this way. Body search!” a female security agent said. I lost my smile. Why? I hadn’t set off the metal detector. No one else was going through this. As they took me back to a small back room, with all the other passengers staring, I felt as if I was a criminal, but what crime had I committed? In this small room, two women felt around my breasts and around my lets under my skirt. This time, I voiced my question, “Why?” “I don’t speak English!” the woman said with force. Then she demanded I sign another form in Turkish, again refusing to translate.

I understand that in comparison with other people’s experiences, this incident may seem minor. And I understand that I have traveled to countries that to the ignorant eye look dangerous. But I was pulled aside because of how I looked and where I have had the privilege of traveling. I felt humiliated and angry, but I didn’t feel any more safe.

The 9/11 hijackers didn’t have long beards or wear thobes, and the London bombers probably would have passed right through security without being profiled. I don’t advocate a security state, but if we must have security at airports, all I ask is that everyone be treated equally. After this experience, I was angry. Then I imagined if I had to always go through this every time I went through a security check, I would be even more angry and alienated, but I have this blog and the Minaret of Freedom Institute as an outlet. I can share my frustration and anger because we have the freedom to express our views, feelings, and experiences. But in many, if not all, Muslim countries, that freedom does not exist or is severely limited. Even Turkey, despite its claims of modernization, does not guarantee the freedom of expression as MFI supporter Prof. Atilla Yalya has discovered (“Turkey Jails Academic for Insulting Ataturk”).

Thus, my experience at the Istanbul airport reaffirms my belief that profiling does not keep us safe and can actually contribute to the alienation of minorities and targeted groups. Moreover, the experience also reaffirms my belief that the freedom of expression is also essential to a safe and secure society.

Sarah Swick

Minaret of Freedom Institute

www.minaret.org

One Response to “Being Profiled”

  1. Dain says:

    Thank you for posting this Sarah.

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