12-Year-Old Girl 'Humiliated' & Forced to Remove Hijab Before Getting on Flight

Fatima Abdelrahman

A 12-year-old girl was forced to remove her hijab when boarding a flight on Air Canada last month, and now a Muslim civil rights advocacy group is calling for change. The San Francisco Bay Area Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is speaking out against the airline, after Fatima Abdelrahman, of Santa Clara, California, was asked to remove the religious garb, which she wears in observance of her faith

  • Abdelrahman is a Junior United States National Squash player who was traveling with her teammates on August 1 when the incident happened.

    Abdelrahman, who is now 13 but was 12 at the time, later said she was "scared" when an agent stopped her at the gate at San Francisco International Airport. But when they asked her remove her hijab, she was stunned.

    To make matters worse, KPIX reports that Abdelrahman had already passed TSA clearance when the request was made. 

    CAIR stated that two additional Air Canada employees also asked her to remove the headscarf, because she wasn't wearing it in her passport photo.

    “The Air Canada agent said you need to take that off -- he pointed at my scarf -- and I said I can’t and he said you have to,” she told KPIX. 

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  • Abdelrahman was then denied her request to privately remove her scarf away from the presence of men, which her faith dictates.

    Instead, she was taken to a tunnel where other passengers -- both male and female -- were deplaning another aircraft, People reports.

    "Scared and worried but able to maintain her composure, Ms. Fatima explained (to airline employees) 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," a complaint from CAIR states.

    Abdelrahman also noted that this was her first trip flying solo without her parents.

    “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 People. "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."

    “It does frustrate me and it really does make me angry,” she added.

  • It's for this reason she has enlisted the help of the civil rights agency, in hopes that other Muslim women and girls don't suffer the same fate.

    Her complaint, which was filed on September 20, noted that the issue was first brought to light when Abdelrahman's older sister, Sabreen Abdelrahman, posted about it on Twitter. Only then was there "any acknowledgement by your organization that this incident was deeply troubling in its impact on Ms. Fatima and that the actions undertaken were discriminatory in nature," the complaint reads.

    Sabreen told People that she later received a message from an Air Canada spokesperson telling her 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 spokesperson also assured her that the airline would be sure to conduct any identification checks "discretely and in a private area.”

  • Meanwhile, the girl's father, Magdy Abdelrahman, demanded to know why his daughter had not been asked to remove her headscarf at a different airport.

    The civil rights group is now demanding monetary damages for pain and suffering, policy changes prohibiting "discrimination and harassment of Air Canada customers based on their purported race, national origin, and religion amongst others," immediate reprimand of the employees who caused the incident, cultural competency training for employees, and a formal written apology.

    "Our concern is that a lot of Bay Area Muslims are going to be flying either to Canada through Air Canada will face similar treatment, if these policies and procedures aren’t clarified, aren’t rectified and a sincere apology isn’t given to the Abdelrahman family,” Ammad Rafiqi, CAIR-SFBA civil rights and legal services coordinator explained to KPIX.

    The airline has since responded to the family's complaint in an emailed statement from a rep, which read: 

    "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."

    At the end of the day, Abdelrahman and her family just want to ensure no one else has to deal with the same uncomfortable singling out in the future -- especially when it revolves around something so closely tied to their faith. Here's hoping that the airline's promise of improvements gets implemented, sooner rather than later.