We are all too familiar with the daily challenges involved in keeping flights and passengers secure, while ensuring throughput rates remain high and providing good quality customer service. But what can we do when the measures designed to keep flights and passengers safe are perceived to be offensive, inappropriate or are prohibited by certain cultures and belief systems? Alexandra James will address a number of culturally sensitive issues that often pose challenges for screeners, and present some helpful advice from religious authorities, community representatives and aviation security professionals to help ensure that the dignity of every individual is respected as they pass through our security systems.

Religious Sensitivities

Modesty and Head Coverings
As advances are made in threat-detection technology, the aviation security industry is becoming increasingly dependent on it to identify individuals who pose a threat. Both the public and many in the industry are guilty of assuming that because a person has ‘gone through security’ (typically, that they have walked through a metal detector and had their bag X-rayed) they do not pose a risk.
Technology still has its limitations – metal detectors can only detect metal and an X-ray machine is only as effective as its operator – and those with malintent towards the industry are coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways to thwart the system. By far the most effective method of screening is by combining new technology with our own original threat detection equipment: our eyes and our ears.

Yet policymakers are faced with a serious dilemma: the conflict between a person's right to wear whatever they wish and the industry's need to observe the behaviour and facial expressions of passengers as they pass through security. Simultaneously, many Muslims are reporting that they feel they are being forced into making difficult decisions, with some feeling pressured to forfeit wearing articles of faith when travelling, or to avoid travelling altogether.

Of course, the issue is not restricted to the aviation security domain. Some European countries have imposed either partial or general bans of the full Islamic veil (burqas and niqabs, but not hijabs). A full ban, such as those imposed in Belgium and France in 2011, prevents the wearing of any face-covering (including balaclavas) in any public space, and a partial ban, such as that approved in The Netherlands in November last year, forbids face veils from being worn in certain public spaces, such as on public transport and in schools and government buildings. Thus far, the UK and Germany have not taken steps to ban burqas and niqabs, but Angela Merkel has spoken in favour of such a move, and a poll in August 2016 found that 57% of the British public would support a burqa ban.

In China, things have been taken a stage further where, in the province of Xinjiang, the authorities (through the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification’, dated 29 March 2017) banned both veils and ‘abnormal’ beards in response to the threat of Islamic fundamentalist attacks.

So what protocols are in place with regards to screening those wearing veils and other head coverings?

In countries where travellers are still permitted to wear the burqa and niqab at airports, passengers wearing face veils should be screened in exactly the same way as any other passenger, and the wearing of a face veil does not itself justify stopping the passenger for further searches.

“One important aspect of airport screeners engaging in best practice is consistency,” said Dr. Tara Lai Quinlan, a qualified New York lawyer and Lecturer in Law at University of Sheffield. “If the bona fide security basis for the stop is the need to observe passengers' behaviour and facial expressions, then all persons whose faces are covered or obstructed must be stopped, including those with hair covering their face, large hats, scarves, face masks, oxygen masks, and the like. Inconsistencies in execution of these stops will inevitably create an atmosphere of distrust and erode public confidence in screeners.”

If it is determined that a passenger wearing a veil is required to undergo further screening – because an alarm has sounded or because she will not submit to being checked via body scanner – then a screener of the same gender should perform a pat-down. A private screening area should be made available and a witness should be allowed to accompany her.

It is important to remember that people of a range of different faiths and ethnicities often wear head coverings but it may not always be obvious that the item is being worn for religious reasons, e.g. hats, wigs and headscarves. Therefore, screeners should always be prepared to offer a private room when requesting the removal of any type of head covering.

With regards to Jewish men removing kippot (skull caps), Marcelle Palmer, the Government Affairs Officer of The Board of Deputies of British Jews, advises us that, “Removing a kippah briefly for a security check is not a specific problem, but removing for a longer period of time/moving around the airport, if needed, would be problematic.”


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