The Council on American-Islamic Relations has sent Air Canada a complaint, asking for "immediate" policy change, among other things.

By Rachel DeSantis / People.com
September 25, 2019

A Muslim civil rights advocacy group is calling for change after a 12-year-old athlete was forced to remove her hijab before boarding a flight in San Francisco.

Fatima Abdelrahman, now 13, was traveling on Air Canada to Toronto with her U.S. National Squash teammates in August when a gate agent stopped her and asked her to remove her hijab, according to a complaint against the airline filed Friday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ San Francisco Bay Area Office.

“Scared and worried but able to maintain her composure, Ms. Fatima explained that she wears the hijab because of her sincerely-held religious beliefs as a practicing Muslim, where she chooses to cover herself in front of men who are not related to her and more generally, in public,” the complaint read.

Air Canada did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Despite the fact that Abdelrahman encountered no issues during a TSA security screening, two additional Air Canada employees also asked her to remove her hijab since she was not wearing it in her passport photo, the complaint states.

“Taking it off isn’t just like taking off a sock or taking off whatever — it’s almost like taking off a limb,” she told local CBS affiliate KPIX. “It’s a big deal to me. It’s part of my Muslim identity and who I am as a person. So when someone tells me to casually take it off and hurry up, it’s degrading.”

Abdelrahman asked if she could have a private screening area in order to remove her hijab without the presence of men, but was told she could not, and was instead taken to a tunnel nearby where other passengers were getting off the plane, according to the complaint.

“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,” the complaint said.

Moving forward, CAIR hopes to ensure that no similar situations arise. The organization wants Air Canada to require cultural competency training for all employees and implement “immediate” policy changes that would prohibit discrimination and harassment of customers based on race, national origin and religion.

CAIR also wants monetary damages for Abdelrahman, a formal written apology, and a reprimanding of the employees involved, among other requests.

Abdelrahman previously recounted the incident to HuffPost Canada, and said that she was heading to a squash tournament and was traveling without her family for the first time.

“It does frustrate me and it really does make me angry,” she told the outlet.

Meanwhile, her sister Sabreen also expressed outrage over the incident, which, according to CAIR, only prompted a response from Air Canada after Sabreen complained on Twitter.

Sabreen told HuffPost she received a message from an Air Canada spokeswoman after tweeting, with the message allegedly saying that the airline “must comply with Canadian laws and regulations, which require us to compare a passenger’s entire face with the photograph shown on the travel document used prior to boarding the aircraft.”

The message also noted that Air Canada would be sure to complete any identification checks involving religious or cultural head wear “discretely and in a private area.”

That explanation did not fly with the sisters’ father, Magdy, who responded with a note of his own that questioned why his daughter had not been asked to remove her head scarf at a different airport.

To that inquiry, Air Canada replied, “On behalf of Air Canada, I would like to apologize for letting you down and leaving you disappointed after boarding your flight at the airport in San Francisco… I agree that this could have been handled better and I want to personally assure you that we are using your feedback to ensure improvements are made,” according to HuffPost.

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