Fatimah Jackson-Best reflects on a recent trip that brought to the fore some issues Muslim women in hijab experience when flying.
I have a confession to make. A few days ago, I did something that I hadn’t done for many years: I took a flight while wearing my hijab draped at the front. Since I was 14, to avoid any unnecessary airport “inconveniences”, which especially since 9/11 have become common for many Muslims and even “Muslim-looking” individuals, I had always boarded a plane with my hijab wrapped in a bun on the nape.
But on the afternoon of my flight last week, I began to reflect on how I’ve been wearing my hijab. Late last year, I started to drape my hijab at the front. It was a conscious choice that I made to be more identifiably Muslim. This decision wasn’t made lightly nor was it done to reinforce ideas about who a real Muslimah is or isn’t, it was a reflection of my spiritual journey and the decisions that have resulted from it.
As a black woman with an English last name, a Canadian accent and a first name that could be considered “exotic”, I have had to regularly explain to people who didn’t know how to categorise me based on my appearance alone that I am a Muslim. These coupled with my having lived in places where there is a high concentration of black women (Barbados and Toronto) have led some to assume that I am a Rastafarian, or simply a woman who chooses to cover her hair. Headwraps have long been worn by black women around the world for religious, work and cultural reasons, and I knew that I could fly with a headwrap without being hassled at the airport for being a suspected terrorist.
A part of me knew that I was “passing”, meaning that I was benefiting from inaccurate assumptions about my religious identity. In doing so, I gained the privilege of travelling with relatively few incidents save for a couple of headwrap pat-downs every now and then. I justified my decision by believing that I was doing what it took to travel in a post-9/11 world without being subjected to negative attitudes about Muslims and Islam. When I saw other women travellers in hijab, I did wonder if they encountered any issues. But these thoughts were not enough for me to change my actions until recently.
I made the choice to fly while hijabi because I realised that if I could walk around the streets of Barbados with my hijab draped at the front, then I should wear it the same way when travelling, even if it makes my life a bit more difficult. It no longer seemed right that I was sliding through customs and immigration under false assumptions on my identity. I also made the choice because I knew that it was best to be in solidarity with Muslim women who fearlessly fly while hijabi in spite of uncomfortable stares or mistreatment. But most of all, I did it for myself because I know that my strength as a Muslim woman isn’t determined by my hijab, but by my belief in justice and equality. I cannot advocate for these values if I am knowingly passing for anything other than a Muslim woman.
On my flight back to Barbados from the Caribbean island of Antigua, I was asked by a customs and immigration officer to remove my hijab to be searched. This was what I had been avoiding for years and I was enraged. I was embarrassed. I wanted to protest out loud. I wanted to refuse and call out the obvious discrimination. But instead I humbled myself and thought of the millions of Muslim women who have experienced similar feelings. It didn’t make these kinds of policies right, but it did bring me back to the original intention I had at the beginning of my trip. So I asked questions like, “Is this the general policy for Muslim women travellers?” And, “Do you have a private room where we can do the search?” We can fight these kinds of issues by being informed and empowering ourselves and, in this instance, it helped the interaction go smoothly.
Many times we choose to do certain things because they seem to be the easier option, but in the process, we may not be doing what’s right. For years, I have been shushing that little voice in my head telling me that my actions were rooted more in fear than self-preservation. The challenge for me and anyone else struggling with similar issues is to learn how to decipher our own truths in order to become our best and most authentic selves.