Air Canada made 12-year-old athlete remove hijab, civil rights group says

MONTREAL — Air Canada employees forced a 12-year-old member of the U.S. national junior squash team to remove her hijab at the San Francisco airport last month, a Muslim civil rights group says.

Fatima Abdelrahman was waiting in line to board her flight to Toronto on Aug. 1 when an Air Canada agent approached her and demanded she remove the religious head covering, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Fatima, who was with her team en route to an international tournament, explained to the agent that she chooses to wear a hijab as part of her faith. She requested a private screening area with the “exclusive presence of female Air Canada agents,” but employees refused and escorted her to a nearby tunnel where she had to remove her hijab publicly, according to a letter of complaint from the council Friday.

“This experience not only went against Ms. Fatima’s reasonable request to be able to adhere to her religious beliefs but also left her feeling angry and humiliated,” council legal co-ordinator Ammad Rafiqi said in the letter, citing the agents’ “flippant and callous attitude.”

The incident violated Fatima’s right to privacy and equal access, he said.

Fatima’s older sister complained about the encounter on Twitter the same day. Air Canada responded in less than 30 minutes, tweeting it was “sorry to hear” about the situation and asking for the passenger’s booking details in order to follow up.

The council’s San Francisco Bay Area office said the airline’s response failed to acknowledge the emotional distress and “discriminatory” nature of its actions, and demanded monetary damages and a formal apology for Fatima as well as cultural competency training for all employees.

After the incident the airline updated its boarding procedures to establish that identity screenings do not require removal of head coverings and that identity verification be done in a private space, the council said in the letter.

Air Canada did not immediately respond to questions from The Canadian Press.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which was not involved in the incident, has said passengers can 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,” the Crown corporation said in an email.

“As noted on our website, any head covering worn through the walk-through metal detector that causes an alarm to sound will require additional screening. If a physical search is required, it may be conducted in a private search room at the passenger’s request.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 23, 2019.

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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press