The first in my family to fly after September 11th, 2001 was my wheelchair-bound, arthritic grandmother. An international traveler of many years, she had carried the same pair of small, sturdy nail clippers in her purse for nearly two decades. They were duly confiscated. We laughed it off nervously. What else could we do? We didn’t laugh when we heard about people being detained indefinitely, guilty-until-proven-innocent treatment of terrorism suspects, names on No Fly lists, and secretly-planted FBI agents (initially dismissed as paranoia, later vindicated at my liberal hometown mosque).
The first time I flew after 9-11, I was fourteen years old. My father was waved through but my mother and I, in our headscarves, were pulled aside. As the TSA agents unzipped my suitcase and snapped on their blue gloves, I started to feel nervous. Their search meant casually making hay of my belongings and I was afraid that their disruption of my tightly-packed items would make it so that the bag wouldn’t close again.
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that they would be going through everything. Carefully hiding my underwear and maxipads under my pajamas had been for naught. These two men were thoughtlessly rooting through what I, as an adolescent girl, felt were my most private possessions. It would have been mortifying for any other teenage girl to have her undergarments and sanitary supplies thoroughly searched by anyone, let alone a pair of older men. It was especially mortifying given how my teenage-girl shyness was enhanced by Islamic gender and modesty laws.
The search ended with the sealing of my bag with a zip-tie, which later proved hilariously problematic, in a Catch-22 sort of way, given that we were staying at a hotel afterwards and weren’t allowed to fly with scissors.
Despite my deconversion from Islam, my caution when it comes to airports persists. My head might be bare and my name not “Muslim”-sounding, but I am often mistaken for an Arab, which is synonymous with “Muslim” to many. I also hail from a Muslim background, have visited Pakistan, love and spend time with my Muslim relatives, and sometimes carry Islamic books with me. People like Sam Harris believe that I ought to be profiled based on those factors — and I am hyper-aware of this fact when I move through airports. I am the most efficient, overly cautious version of myself when flying and do things in that context to which I am far from proud to admit. I’ve viciously snapped at my partner for briefly mentioning the dubious merits of TSA security theater. I’ve stood as far away from other “Muslim”-looking or -seeming folks so as to avoid any perception of collusion or affiliation. When on the phone, I avoid the usual “salaam” greetings I otherwise use with family members. I carry both my passport and my driver’s license with me when I travel even just domestically, “just in case,” as I say.
Given all that, I have absolutely no sympathy for someone who is angry about being subjected to appropriate actions when he violated TSA regulations. I might even feel angry about it when it’s someone prone to sarcastically belittling others’ problems by comparing them to problems he personally believes are worse. Even worse is when it comes from someone who promotes the narrow view of Muslims and Islam that make my life difficult in the first place.
I could go the cheap route and say that from this ex-Muslima’s point of view, my problems as a traveler are far worse than those of Dawkins and therefore he should shut up and never complain about his problems ever again. Instead, I will do him a far greater courtesy than he does to others and admit that his pain is not only real, but also indicative of a greater matter.
Almost everyone agrees that at least some of the TSA guidelines are irrational. It’s not a controversial thing to point out that they are. If only Dawkins had noticed and called out said issues in the full dozen years that they have existed, in the time span of over a decade in which they have adversely affected others. But I guess a community that doesn’t produce enough Nobel Prize winners for Richard Dawkins’s satisfaction shouldn’t expect men like him to care for the rights of its members. They’ll only notice when their sweets are taken away from them.
Update: Dawkins has responded on The Guardian. In his piece, he manages to denigrate those tweeting at him while dubbing his tweet “campaigning” against unfair TSA rules.