A Muslim-American woman has spoken out about an airport screening in which she was reportedly forced to show Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents her bloodied sanitary pad. Zainab Merchant, a writer and Harvard student, was flying from Boston to Washington DC on March 3 this year when TSA officers reportedly approached her at Boston Logan airport.
According to Merchant’s account, which was published in full by the American Civil Liberties Union, TSA officials singled her out for an “extraordinarily intrusive and humiliating search.” After a female official allegedly told a fellow TSA agent that she wanted to take a “deeper look” at Merchants groin, they told her to follow them to a private room. Merchant, who was fearful of being screened in private, requested a public search. At this point, Merchant alleges, state troopers and TSA officials pressured her into a private search, and refused to return her mobile phone so she could call her attorney for advice. “Because Ms. Merchant felt that she had no choice, she proceeded to the private screening,” reads the text of a complaint sent on Merchant’s behalf by the ACLU to the Department of Homeland Security.
Once in the private room, Merchant alleges that a female agent patted her down and asked her to open her pants. She claims she complied, revealing a sanitary pad. As Merchant left, she allegedly attempted to take down the names of the TSA agents who pressured her into the private room, but claims all but one intentionally obscured their badge.
For the 27-year-old, this is the most egregious example of a long-standing pattern of behavior she says she has experienced at the hands of TSA agents at airports across the US. Every time Merchant has travelled into or out of a US airport in the last two years, she alleges, TSA agents have subjected her to arduous or excessive searches. A complaint signed by the ACLU details at least 10 instances in which Merchant was searched in front of passengers while waiting to board a plane, including one instance where an explosives unit was called in to search her, and another where a dog unit was used.
Watch: Malala on Refugees, Advocacy, and the Girl Power Trip
“I realized this is not random,” Merchant said in comments reported by the Huffington Post. She believes she was placed on a government watchlist, despite having no criminal convictions or connections with any terrorist group. “There is definitely a pattern to this, and I’m on some kind of list that is making me go through this again and again.”
The ACLU told the Huffington Post that they believed Merchant has been designated a “secondary security screening selectee,” a category which typically encompasses those of Muslim religion or Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern descent. “This is a major concern for members of Muslim communities, members of Arab or Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian communities,” Hugh Handeyside, an attorney at the ACLU, told the Huffington Post.
In addition, Merchant alleges that in March 2017 US customs agents have asked her about her political views, her religious beliefs, articles she had written for her personal blog, and whether she supported ISIS, or knew any ISIS supporters. Merchant assured the US customs officers at Toronto Pearson International Airport that she did not know any ISIS supporters, but would notify police if she met any. On another instance in September 2016, she claims customs agents forced Merchant to wait for six hours with her partner and six-month-old baby, in a cold room without access to food or her phone.
The TSA did not immediately return Broadly’s request for comment on Merchant’s case. However, TSA told the Huffington Post: “The Department of Homeland Security can neither confirm nor deny whether someone is on a watch list or provide any information about an individual who may be on federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information.”
Her complaint may shine a light on instances of alleged mistreatment of Muslim-American citizens and other minority groups by the Department for Homeland Security. But for Merchant, the experience of being routinely humiliated and singled out for unfair treatment she says has taken a toll: She’s become fearful of flying due to the “anxiety and humiliation she experiences when she does fly", the ACLU claims.
“Zainab’s terrible experience is yet another indication of the unfairness of the watchlisting system and the harms it inflicts on individual lives,” says Handeyside. “We’re calling on the Department for Homeland Security to stop singling Zainab out for this treatment.”