Travel Tips for Everyone including Religious Minorities

I used to work for the Transportation Security Administration while in hijab so I stuck out like a sore thumb but alhamdulillah some Jewish sisters fought for the right to wear skirts and I fought for the right to wear religious headgear particularly hijab and we were successful.

On August 4, 2007, TSA changed their policy on religious headgear which unlike any other hats or baseball caps still do not need to be removed but give the screener at the walk-through metal detector (WTMD) the prerogative to refer an individual wearing religious headgear for additional secondary screening usually for closer eye inspection and a hand-held metal detector search with a limited pat-down of the headgear even if the individual did not alarm in the walk-through metal detector.

I flew a few weeks ago from Sea-Tac in Seattle to Reagan National in DC and did not encounter any issues with my hijab although a female screener did pat down my lower legs under my jilbab.

General Tips for Religious Minorities and the General Public at the Security Checkpoint:

Take everything metal (I mean everything, keys, cell phone, pager, coins, etc are metal) out of your pockets and put them in your carry-on bag, not at the front of the line but while you are waiting to get to the front. You do not need one of those little white plastics bowls or the gray tubs for your small metal objects. Keep your boarding pass handy because it might be checked again while you undergo the screening process.

Take off your shoes without complaint. If you think the floor is too dirty for your pristine feet then wear socks. It doesn’t matter if this or that airport or another screener in the same airport didn’t ask you to take off shoes, if you are told to remove your shoes, do so. If it is difficult to remove your footwear, then you can request an additional screening where you will be screened with a hand-held metal detector, a chair will be provided for you, and the screener will run your shoes through the x-ray machine and possibly the explosive trace detection machine as well.

Take off your suit jackets, windbreakers, other jackets, hoodies, sweatshirts, and coats. Some sisters wear as style of jilbab that resembles an outer jacket but these do not need to be removed.

I once had to get into it at Dulles airport with a screener at the WTMD over my jilbab which she thought was a long jacket, I demanded a private search and was granted one as is the right of any passenger, two female screeners accompanied me that were very respectful, and then I complained to the screening supervisors, and just missed my flight, I could see the plane was still at the gate but they had closed the doors, alhamdulillah, I got on the next flight.

The wearing of baggy clothes is a valid reason to be subject to additional screening although that is generally left up to the discretion of the screener on the walk-through metal detector even if you do not alarm the machine.

At BWI, we had quotas to meet on the number of random individuals we sent for secondary screening and often to meet those targets we would send individuals that ostensibly had done everything right just to get our numbers up and make our superiors look good in front of their superiors even though we as screeners generally hated to do that.

Take your laptop out of the bag, put it into a gray tub by itself, nothing above or below. When I worked x-ray machine I would generally ask for CPAP breathing machines, X-boxes, Playstations, and other heavy metal mechanical objects to be removed for closer inspection.

If you have items you might be embarrassed to show in front of a large group of people, I would suggest you put them in your checked baggage because we can see them on the x-ray and you never know when you will be subject to a random bag search.

The less gray trays you use, the better. Screeners love to see people put their items like shoes, coats, and bags directly onto the moving x-ray belt, the key word here is the black moving belt not on the gray metal piece before the belt. The less trays used mean less work collecting, carrying, and stacking for the screeners and the x-ray belt moves more freely when trays do accumulate on the rollers.

Jokes about bombs, weapons, and hijackings are taken seriously and will most likely land you in hot water with the airport police and making your flight will become doubtful.

There is a general misconception that having books with Arabic lettering might be a cause for suspicion. Generally, books are not checked that closely although screeners may skim through the pages looking for hidden contraband. I did on one occasion witness an individual that “looked Muslim” being questioned for carrying a book about defeating terrorism in the Middle East, which I thought was completely absurd and I told the screener and police officer that it was nonsense and the man was let go.

If you are flagged into the SSSS slow line for extra screening, it is best to keep negative comments to the screeners to a minimum, even if you are not having a good day or think you should be exempt for the additional hassle or you fear missing your flight because we may just delay you further on purpose by doing extra tests and by doing a painstakingly slow and thorough bag search.

Sometimes, an airline employee would come and tell the screeners that so and so passenger was rude at the counter so we would pull them over for additional screening just as a courtesy for the airline workers.

Try not to complain when airport and airline personnel including skycaps cut in front of you in line because they always have priority in screening.

Deodorant is a must. There are certain groups of passengers that are well-known for not wearing deodorant or for having bugs crawling out of their bags.

Airport screening is a system, it is made for the masses not for individuals, so if you see a baby, young child, elderly person, or individual with a disability being screened in a manner that strikes you as a layperson as odd, just remember it’s a system written into the Standard Operating Procedures and then implemented by the screeners.

From the Storehouse:

Flying While Muslim

Snakes on a Plane, Muslims off the Plane


  1. Alhumdulilah for the tips!

    I’ve only been stopped once for extra screening and the lady said it was because my flight was changed at the last minute. I try my best not to beep as I don’t want to give them any excuse to bother me. However from the looks of your post.. where I beep or not doesn’t really matter. BOOO HISSS

    I’ll be checking back later for more tips inshaAllah!

  2. asa. i heard about this. several sikhs have been targeted at major airports and are complaining about it. i just posted about this on my blog yesterday. it’s more than annoying. JAK for the tips. the unfortunate reality is that there are not many tips to combat bigotry.

  3. Asalamu alaykum

    Jam: Sometimes, last minute changes in flights due cause a passenger to be sent for extra screening, it was not uncommon for a flight to be canceled and the airline re-booked all the passengers and then almost the entire canceled flight would be sent for additional screening. It’s always better not to alarm the metal detector, if you do not alarm you are less likely to be sent for additional screening.

    Muslimahlocs: I’m not sure what happened to those sikhs but I doubt if any of them had to take off their turbans. TSA does try to educate screeners about different faiths and has an official policy of not profiling groups of people but some screeners due profile based on their own biases.

  4. As Salaamu Alaikum:

    Muslimahlocs: I got an email forwarded to me recently warning about the step-up in airport screening and it talked about just what you mentioned because screeners may start doing light searching of Muslimas’ khimars by passing their hands over the outside of the khimar. The email said that some Sikhs HAVE been asked to remove their turbans and even subjected to a hair search! For those who don’t know, the Sikh men wear their hair very long and it’s ususally put into a small bun atop their head underneath the turban. Their beards are also very long, but they appear to be shorter because they divide the beard in half, twirl it on the right and left and tuck the twirled hair over and behind their ears.

    Is this stuff getting ridiculous or what?! Next we’ll be asked to remove the baby’s diaper! Wa ‘aoodhu billah!

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