A Young Woman’s Struggle With Southwest Airlines Shows Depth Of Islamophobia

A Young Woman’s Struggle With Southwest Airlines Shows Depth Of Islamophobia

A Young Woman’s Struggle With Southwest Airlines Shows Depth Of Islamophobia

An American MA student, of Pakistani descent, was flagged by a Southwest Airlines crew member as “suspicious” and kicked off the plane, all for saying "I’ve got to go."


Last week France unveiled its bigotry as its niqab ban took effect.

The French state has chosen to further weaken the status of women by making their public presence illegal if they choose to wear a veil. But new legislation like this is not shocking in the context of recent events that prove how firmly entrenched the fear of the unknown has become.

Take the March 13th incident involving the corporate giant Southwest Airlines and a 31-year-old, mother of three, graduate student, Irum Abbasi.

Abbasi, an American of Pakistani descent, was flagged by a Southwest Airlines crew member as “suspicious” and kicked off the plane.

A crew member sensed a terror plot was brewin’ as Abbasi went to hang up her cell phone with a friendly “I’ve got to go.” The crew member alleges she heard “it’s a GO.”

The scene panned then out with fewer surprises then a re-run of The Three Stooges.

Abbasi immediately handed over her cell phone and purse for inspection. But the pilot chose to follow through with the crew member’s allegation: The young mother was ordered off the flight and into the arms of Transport Security Administration who—after some patting of her veiled head—set her free.  

One would like to believe that Islamic fundamentalism is a story written in sinister prose; one that lurks in the shadowy courtyards of every American mosque and is preached to every Muslim boy and girl behind the doors of every madrassa—err, school.

But incidents, such as Irum Abbasi’s, paint a slightly more prosaic truth.

Legislating-away items of clothing may not be an immediate American reality. But a blatant targeting of the hijab and niqab is not only a case in which discrimination-based on religious attire becomes a symbol of the economic repression of Muslims—but also feeds the anti-Muslim sentiment growing in certain circles in this country.

Edgar Hopida, director of public relations for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in an interview with The Nation points to the connection between the Southwest Airlines incident and the recent Rep. Peter King’s hearings on ‘muslim radicalization,” anti-Shariah legislation pushed by several states and the anti-mosque movement coast to coast.

Hopida adds that American Muslims do not ask for, and should not be given, special treatment, “What we are asking for is what every American is guaranteed under the constitution.”

As the bodies of Muslim women continue to serve as political battlegrounds (possibly up next: Italy, the Netherlands, Quebec and even the predominantly-Muslim, Turkey) here’s one tentative lesson: freedom of religion, expression and assembly are all necessary elements of any just society.

The people of the Middle East—Muslims, Christians, secularists and hard-liners alike who are currently showing unwavering resiliency and boldness in the face of oppressive and discriminatory regimes—understand this.

How is it the case that an airline—which has gone to great lengths to overcome a history of racial profiling—has become subject to the fear mongering promoted by a select few incendiary demagogues?

Or are we just asking too much from a company that deemed Kevin Smith, American actor and producer, too fat to fly?

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this story, I spoke with Abbasi who is currently unwilling to handle media requests. But she did say she is unsatisfied with Southwest Airlines response and re-conciliatory $197 flight voucher.

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