Air Canada Threatened With Legal Action After Girl Forced to Remove Hijab: 'It's Like Taking Off a Limb. It's Part of Me'

A Muslim advocacy group has filed a complaint and threatened legal action against Air Canada after a girl was allegedly asked to remove her hijab before boarding a plane—despite already going through security.

Fatima Abdelrahman, who was 12 at the time, was allegedly forced to remove her religious garment by Air Canada staff at San Francisco International Airport on August 1 while waiting to get a plane to Toronto.

Abdelrahman, now 13, had no issues passing through TSA security checkpoints at the airport. She claims an airline employee asked her to remove her hijab as she was not wearing one in her passport photo.

"The hijab doesn't cover my face," Abdelrahman told KTVU. "Hair is not part of identification even if someone dyed their hair, it doesn't mean they can't tell who it is."

Abdelrahman was traveling to Toronto to take part in a tournament with the U.S. National Squash Team. She said she was asked to remove her hijab in front of her friends and teammates.

"It hurt," she added "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."

The girl then requested a private screening so she could remove her hijab in the presence of female staff members only so she did not violate her religious beliefs.

The Air Canada staff refused and escorted her to a tunnel where other passengers were boarding the plane, where she eventually took the headscarf off.

"Taking off my hijab isn't the same as taking off any other article of clothing, Abdelrahman explained. "It's like taking off a limb. It's part of me. It's part of who I am."

The incident only came to light after Abdelrahman's older sister tweeted about it. "Pls explain why you pulled aside my 12yr old sister for flight 758 making her take off her hijab AT THE GATE?? AFTER she already passed security??" Sabreen Abdelrahman wrote in a message to Air Canada on August 1.

"Thx for ruining her experience as the first U.S. National Team Squash player in Hijab + her first time traveling alone."
Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar also tweeted about the incident to her 1.6 million followers. "This is unacceptable! Can't imagine how traumatic this must be for her and her parents. In solidarity little sis," Omar wrote.

The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has now filed a complaint against the airline for allegedly discriminating against the girl because of her "immutable personal characteristics and religion."

In a letter of complaint to Air Canada, CAIR is also demanding that the company offers monetary damages to Abdelrahman, reprimand the employees involved and provide a written formal apology to avoid a "protracted and costly legal fight."

In a statement, CAIR-SFBA's Civil Rights & Legal Services Coordinator Ammad Rafiqi said: "CAIR-SFBA, along with our client, are committed to ensuring that in the future individuals hoping to travel with Air Canada or other airlines are not subject to differential treatment based on their religious beliefs and how they choose to observe their faith.

"We hope Air Canada will show responsibility by coming to the table in good-faith to ensure that Fatima is made whole for having her right to privacy violated and the ensuing distress she felt during the trip."

In an email to the family, Air Canada 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.

"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 discreetly and in a private area."

Air Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(File photo) A young woman wearing a Hijab watches the arrivals board at the international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, March 6, 2017 in New York City.A 13-year-old girl claims she was forced to remove her hijab in public by Air Canada employees beofre boaring a flight to Toronto. Drew Angerer/Getty