SANTA CLARA, Calif. (KTVU) - A 13-year-old girl said she was forced to remove her hijab in public by Air Canada employees. Now, the family is threatening to sue the airline for discrimination and for violating the girl's right to privacy.
Fatima Abdelrahman said she was boarding a flight from San Francisco to Toronto for an international squash tournament last month. She had no problems passing through TSA’s security checkpoints but she said Air Canada staff stopped her for wearing her religious head scarf.
The eighth grader said an airline employee demanded she take off her hijab because in her passport photo, she wasn't wearing her hijab. She initially refused.
“The hijab doesn't cover my face,” Fatima said. “Hair is not part of identification even if someone dyed their hair, it doesn't mean they can't tell who it is.”
Fatima said it was embarrassing to be treated like that in front of her peers and fellow athletes on the U.S. National Squash Team.
“It hurt,” she said. “It felt like I was alienated from my teammates. They all passed. I was scared. I was worried. I didn't know what was going to happen.”
Fatima then requested a private screening area. Air Canada staff brought her to a nearby tunnel where she eventually removed her hijab against her religious beliefs in public, not in private as she had asked.
“Taking off my hijab isn't the same as taking off any other article of clothing,” she said. “It's like taking off a limb. It’s part of me. It’s part of who I am.”
Fatima’s sister complained on Twitter. The family then turned to the Council of Islamic Relations, which filed a complaint this week.
“I have a right to wear my head scarf,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR San Francisco Bay Area. “Fatima has a right to wear her head scarf and Air Canada crossed the line when they forced her to remove it in public.”
KTVU reached out to Air Canada but did not hear back.
In email responses to the family, Customer Service Manager Jenna Bennett wrote: “Air Canada 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.”
Bennett went on to say, “Should one of our passengers wear religious or cultural head wear, as many do, we recognize the importance of respecting their right to privacy and any necessary identification check is to be done discretely and in a private area.”
The email then said the company will review the situation with airport agents to ensure better care is taken in the future. The family wants proof employees are being properly trained.
“We want to defend our rights,” said Fatima's father, Magdy Abdelramen. “There is a reason we are in this country. No matter what their religion, their race, their origin, male or female we have to be all respected.”
The family is considering monetary damages and a lawsuit. They have not come up with a specific dollar amount but what they really want is an anti-discrimination policy and training.