Touching Turbans and Airport Security

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Posted on February 20th, 2013 | Filed under Uncategorized

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

This afternoon, I was forced to let someone else touch my turban. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my life.

I attended a conference at Stanford University this weekend and was traveling back home to New York City by way of San Francisco International Airport. I've made this cross-country journey hundreds of times in my life and have traveled all over the world -- but not once have I ever been forced to allow security to pat down my turban.

I understand the importance of security in our current state, and we all agree that it is particularly important to maintain vigilance in airport settings. In fact, like everyone else, I appreciate our country's efforts to ensure our safety.

At the same time though, I believe there is a way of accomplishing this without embarrassing, humiliating, or alienating one another. Can you imagine what it's like to be a dark-skinned, bearded man who is pulled aside by airport security and forced to have his turban patted down?

In addition to feeling helpless and humiliated, I also feel like I am guilty of perpetuating a certain stereotype. I can only imagine what was going through my co-travelers minds as the security officers whisked me away for a private screening.

Although this incident was exceptional, it is not all that different than the additional screening I typically undergo while traveling in the United States. Above and beyond the typical screening process, I am usually asked by the officer to undergo additional screening. I stand in plain view of all other passengers while an officer waves a metal detecting wand over my turban. I am then given the option to pat down my own turban and have my hands swabbed to check for chemical or explosive residue.

While this is embarrassing in and of itself, it is not nearly as upsetting as to have someone else touch my turban. The turban is a mandatory article of the Sikh faith, and it represents the loving bond between the believer (Sikh) and the Divine (Guru). As this relationship is deeply personal, so is the relationship between a Sikh and their turban. In my eyes, someone else touching my turban is a violation of that bond.

I am not asking for a free pass, nor do I expect one. However, with a bit of cultural awareness and sensitivity, I believe our society can learn to treat one another with a deeper level of respect. I would like to see us all come together and embrace policies that are less alienating and offensive.

If we want to increase societal trust, we have to begin approaching one another with more compassion and empathy - and our federal institutions must take the lead.

The Transportation Security Administration has done a wonderful job these past several years of ensuring our safety. Yet as civil rights organizations like SALDEF and the Sikh Coalition have shown us, it is now time for us to demand more. We need our federal institutions to better account for its constituents in a careful and compassionate way.

Currently, we see many of our governmental institutions compromising our freedoms to ensure our safety. I would like to see our nation strike a balance in which we maintain security and account for our values and dignities. This approach will require a thoughtful and concentrated effort, but I have no doubt that our society will be better for it.

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Simran Jeet Singh is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He is currently the Scott and Rachel F. McDermott Fellow for the American Institute of Indian Studies. Simran also serves as the Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and Education Director for the Surat Initaitive. Simran was selected as one of three Outstanding Contributing Scholars to speak at State of Formation's workshop held at the 2013 American Academy of Religion.


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