By Shambhavi Saxena:
A few weeks ago, on October 26th, a young woman was forced to change into trousers because an Indian airline refused to allow her on board in her short dress. A former employee and relative of a current employee of IndiGo Airlines, this young woman was travelling on “staff leisure travel privileges” and therefore subject to a specific dress code. As soon as the story hit the internet, it left people confused and outraged. As one of the tweets in response reads: “For an airline that says Hi 6E! this is quite prudish.”
Airports are interesting spaces. They are in-between spaces, at the borders of one place and the next. In some cities, they are symbolic of economic power and progress, in others they are representative of a life in transit. But they are also spaces of anxiety. America is home to the oldest airfield, and in many ways has pioneered international air travel. While the outward push of the airport is characteristically American, replacing the imperial fleet with a deceptively friendly but equally ambitious airborne one, paranoia about porous borders has settled into the way they function. After all, the country has made no bones about its relationship with its neighbour to the south.
It was the twin-tower attacks in 2001 that brought in a range of new questions about security. But Islamophobia is clearly not restricted to post 9/11 America. Islamophobia is so bad that it’s not just actual Muslims who get racially profiled but pretty much anyone who matches the description – or, rather, the stereotype. Back in 2007, Metallica frontman James Hetfield was held by Luton airport officials in London because of his ‘Taliban-like beard‘! In fact there’s a number of threads on travel forums that, in all seriousness, discuss whether or not it’s okay to have a “travel beard”, given the kind of ‘random security checks’ people are subjected to so be careful in choosing a beard trimmer so that you can use it during travel! And, as with Hetfield, it’s not just people of colour. Eight year old Drew Sanders and his father Martin, two white British nationals, were barred from their flight by U. S. Homeland Security, with no explanations given.
A month before the Sanders family were to have a run-in with security, 14 year old Scot girl Grace Wain had hers with Etihad Airways. They picked on her complexion, insisting she was too ill to board the flight, forcing her to undergo a medical examination, when in reality, she was just a naturally pale, ginger-haired individual!
In the case of the IndiGo flight, the woman in question was expected to conform to an employee dress code, because she was flying on an employee ticket. But no woman should be chastised for what she’s wearing, especially not a woman who isn’t even serving as flight staff! A fellow passenger was quick to tell reporters that the woman’s dress came well up to her knees, but even if hadn’’t been ‘modest’, were these actions justified? The IndiGo rules simply perpetuate the idea that if a woman who wears what she wants, she is a threat to the carefully constructed patriarchal matrix of modesty and shame. But so is a woman who doesn’t fit the gender binary. In September this year, trans artist Shadi Petosky was held at Orlando International Airport, when security labelled her body as ‘an anomaly’, subjecting her to a humiliating body check. Rules or not, these appear to be the insidious workings brought to you by the makers of “she was asking for it” who have regimentalized the idea that any transgression must punished. In the old days, they’d push you to a corner outside the village. Today, they throw you off the flight you’ve already paid for.
Airports have become space of interrogation, of reinforcing norms, of invading bodies with scans and pat-downs. You’d think with all that jet fuel they could at least get some mileage on progressive politics, but no. Suspicions that airport security regulations and interventions are just an extension of the dominant class’ prejudice are not unfounded. The post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ instituted by the George Bush administration resulted in the ‘No Fly List’, followed by the discouragingly frequent harassment of South-Asian fliers. Security personnel began conflating personal racist politics with their line of work. And can you blame them for just doing their jobs? Should you? The answer is yes, actually. Because harassing innocent passengers shouldn’t ever be a part of ‘security’ work.
In the U. S., the Transport Security Administration (TSA) has 3,000 Behaviour Detection Officers “trained to detect behavioral clues of ‘mal-intent.'” The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT program, flags things like “excessive yawning” and “wringing of hands” as suspicious behaviour. The Intercept has criticized the program as a tool for targetting immigrants rather than identifying terrorists.
Airports should be spaces of transit, both physical and ideological – not a psychological battlefield, where anything from the colour of your skin to the length of your skirt can make you break into a sweat as you near the security booth. What’s disappointing is that they’re creating more boundaries where they should be leaving them behind.