Minority Report

Targeting Sikh Americans (TSA)

By Anju Kaur | November 15, 2010

Reporting from WASHINGTON – Sikh passengers will always be singled out for secondary pat-downs and tertiary hand held metal-detector screenings at airports, even after first passing through newly implemented full-body scanners, advocacy groups said.

At a recent meeting with the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Sikh representatives were told that turbans would be subjected to two extra screening procedures 100 percent of the time when they pass through security. The TSA considers turbans an “anomaly” that requires additional screenings because the scanners cannot fully penetrate the multiple folds of cloth, TSA officials said at the meeting.

Yet, a manufacturer of these machines, which the TSA calls Advanced Imaging Technology scanners, says the machines can scan through clothing so clearly that they include software to blur out private parts of the body.

“The technology allows for the detection of threats concealed under clothing, without providing enough detail to enable identification of a person, said Rapiscan Systems, in a statement emailed to SikhNN. “A software-generated privacy filter blurs sensitive screening areas while still providing the best detection capabilities available.”

And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), TSA’s parent organization, also says on its Web site: “Advanced imaging technology is designed to bolster security by safely screening passengers for metallic and non-metallic threats—including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing.”

So why is a turban an “anomaly”?

“We are justifying TSA’s security to the country,” said Hansdeep Singh, staff attorney for United Sikhs, who was at the meeting. “We justify that they are doing their job. There’s no other reason.”



TSA’s August 2007 headgear policy had already been a nightmare for many Sikhs. The following is a paraphrased account of what happened to Gurdeep Singh Bawa of Potomac, Maryland, when he was traveling home with his family from Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Sept. 19.

We were many hours early for the 4 p.m. flight. I thought let’s go to the airport and eat lunch. We checked in our baggage at 12:20 p.m.

We went through the gate, and I didn’t buzz. But as soon as I came out, they wanted to check me. I don’t want to you to touch me, I told the officer. They let me do the self-touch (pat down). The chemical detector alarmed, they told me. They called the police and the police came but they did not talk to me. In front of me, the police called Maryland to do a check on my records. Two to five minutes later they found nothing.

The TSA officer was not being nice to me. He called his boss. His boss came but never talked to me. He stayed far away. About 30 to 45 minutes later they did the chemical test again. This time there was no alarm signal. He gave me the impression it was fine.

The same TSA officer made me wait another 30 minutes. We were there for too long. Then he said he has to call his senior boss. He made me sit down and went away. I never saw the senior boss. But the TSA officer came back and said I have to take my turban off.

He took me to a room. I asked my (college-age) son to come with me because I just wanted someone with me. I took my turban off and put it on a tray and let go. He wrote a report. I don’t know why they did not make my son go through the same things. I felt that they were harassing me. When the second chemical test came out fine, why not let me go? I was very upset.

The officer never gave me his name or a copy of the report. I asked. They were treating me like a criminal. I was there with my family, why go to that extent? They checked my police record yet people can come in with stuff in their underwear. You don’t check anybody’s underwear.

I had no problem at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They’re not consistent. If you are the same agency how come you do one thing in one place and another thing in another place?

We did not leave security until 3:45 p.m., missed lunch and nearly missed the flight.

Full disclosure: Gurdeep Singh is related to Anju Kaur.

The impact of such a policy is far greater for Sikhs, Hansdeep Singh said. “Previously screened, you are put into a glass box to await secondary and tertiary screenings. Once you are in any enclosure, you’re suspect. When the public only sees these individuals (Sikhs), it translates to suspicion among society,” he said.

Sikh men are required by the tenets of their faith to wrap a turban around a topknot of unshorn hair. It is optional for Sikh women. Nearly everyone that wears a turban in the United States is a Sikh.

At least two representatives each from United Sikhs, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Sikh Coalition attended the Sept. 21 meeting. TSA representatives included a civil rights specialist, a screening specialist, a policy advisor and an attorney from DHS.

The Sikh groups had sent a letter to TSA and DHS seeking clarification on how the new scanners would affect screening protocols regarding Sikhs.


While other civil rights groups are criticizing these scanners because they essentially take an X-ray and produce a nude image of the passenger, Sikh groups said they were hoping that, even with privacy issues, at least all passengers would be subject to the same treatment in terms of screenings.

“It’s a virtual strip search,” Hansdeep Singh said. “Privacy is crucial and modesty is crucial. If they gave a little we would have compromised a little.”

Sikh groups had been working with TSA for the last three years on its headgear policy, which required a secondary pat down of the turban after passing through a metal detector. According to the August 2007 policy, the pat-downs were to take place randomly and at the discretion of the TSA officer.

“It was supposed to work,” said Rajdeep Singh, law and policy director with the Sikh Coalition. “(But) the problem at many airports was that Sikhs were being set aside for secondary screening 100 percent of time. That smacked of abuse. We were very upset that Sikhs were falling prey to profiling.”

The groups were invited for sensitivity training of TSA personnel at many airports. The policy was clarified to allow Sikhs to have the officer do the pat-down, do a self pat-downs and have their hands checked for chemicals, or ask for a turban check in a private room. Still, the policy was implemented differently at different airports. They had many complaints from Sikh passengers.


On Christmas 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to board a plane with explosives in his underwear, TSA lobbied for deployment of the body scanners.

“What we were led to believe is that the adoption of these machines would eliminate screener discretion,” Rajdeep Singh said. “In a way it was a tempting and alluring option. Sikhs would be treated equally.

“It was a rude shock that, in fact, the policy of TSA was to set aside Sikhs 100 percent of the time,” he said.

“We were caught by complete surprise,” said Manjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He was “cautiously enthusiastic” about the new scanners until he was told that Sikhs would have to go through all levels of screening.

Turbaned Sikhs will now have to go through a metal detector or body scanner, and do the self pat-down, and have their turbans scanned with a hand-held metal detector.

The new policy was implemented on Oct 29.


There have not been recent changes on screening with regard to headwear, the issue is related to bulky clothing, said Nick Kimball, a TSA spokesman. The previous headgear policy is now included with bulky clothing policy.

There is a potential with bulky clothing, he said. If a screener is unable to get a full resolution, there will be further screenings.

While TSA has told Sikh advocacy groups that the new policy is all screening all the time for turbans, it has not made it public. Kimball said he could only talk about the new TSA policy and not what was stated at the meeting because he was not there.

Over a year ago when the body scanners started being deployed, officers were using handheld metal detectors if they were not satisfied with the initial screening, Kimball said.

“There is no profiling or targeting,” he said. “If there is bulky clothing, officers may have to do different screenings.”

But what Sikh groups were told at the meeting was “a complete about face from what they were claiming (about the scanners) and what they were stating,” Manjit Singh said.

“Why is TSA is doing this? It is either because their machine is defective when it comes to screening turbans, or it actually works, and we are unnecessarily being targeted and screened,” Hansdeep Singh added by email.

“If these machines cannot see through layers of turban, why are you telling the world otherwise?” Rajdeep Singh said. “They have not been consistent or candid about these machines… (And) they are deliberately opaque about the policy.”


After three years of working closely with TSA, Sikh groups lamented that the new policy was implemented without their input.

“We were never consulted or invited to come in and see how this affects us,” Hansdeep Singh said. “We would pursue to see what about this technology does not allow you to see through clothing.”

“We asked them to schedule tests where we will bring Sikh volunteers to go through the scanners with turbans and patkaas and see what is the actual output,” Manjit Singh said. “If this (anomaly) indeed is the case, we’ll see what we can do. If not, then it (extra screenings) is definitely uncalled for. That would be targeted screening of the Sikh turban.”

“All options are on the table,” Rajdeep Singh said, regarding litigation.