Do you know someone who prefers to wear saris everywhere? One of my aunts wore a sari every day to work in downtown Los Angeles and post-retirement, I hear that she’s only been spotted in non-sari clothes while attending a local yoga class. When I heard about the new federal guidelines for screening air travel passengers, I wondered how she might fare and feel if she’s chosen for an enhanced pat-down at an airport the next time she travels to Georgia to visit her daughter and family.
Mississippi is not Georgia, but Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar’s recent pat-down experience at a Mississippi airport which had no body scanners may shed some light on what it’s like across the U.S. under the new federal guidelines for women who wear saris while traveling (WWWSWT). I suppose WWWSWT could include any of us who wear saris if you’re on a really tight schedule and flying to or from a wedding, for example. But I’m guessing they are more likely to be women like my aunt who simply prefer to wear saris all the time.
WWWSWT also includes India’s current ambassador to the U.S. She’s used to being treated differently in daily life due to her diplomat status. As India’s foreign minister S.M. Krishna stated, there are “certain well-established conventions, well-established practices, as to how members of the diplomatic corps are treated in a given country.”
But at Jackson-Evers International, the airport officers didn’t single out Shankar, 60, for being a diplomat. They singled her out for wearing a sari.
Shankar apparently was selected for enhanced screening, even though she did not set of the airport’s metal detectors. Witnesses tell the Clarion-Ledger security agents told Shankar she was singled out because she was wearing a sari, which the paper notes is as “a traditional Indian robe that is draped across the body.” (USA Today)
Though Shankar hasn’t officially said anything yet, her Mississippi
university hosts described her as humiliated and saying “I will never
come back here.” Perhaps like the mutineer who called this incident Draupadi-gate, you recalled the attempted stripping of Draupadi in the Mahabharata when you heard about the ambassador’s pat-down.
In the Mahabharata, the divine hero Krishna protected Draupadi from humiliation by continuously extending her sari so that she could not be completely disrobed. In this news story out of Mississippi, the ambassador was not made to disrobe or partially disrobe to facilitate an enhanced pat-down. She wasn’t given much privacy either, despite her request for a private screening.
The guidelines also allow searches to be conducted in private if a passenger requests. Witnesses said Shankar asked for a private screening, but she was led to a clear box where two officers searched her in clear view.
“She is a very strong woman, but you could see in her face that she was humiliated,” Tsai said. “The Indian culture is very modest.”(Clarion-Ledger)
Krishna, the Indian foreign minister, called the incident “unacceptable” and vowed to “take it up with the government of the United States so that such unpleasant incidents do not recur.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “concern” over the search and Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano said the search was “by the book”–neither apologized. (BBC) Should they have apologized?
The airport involved did not have the new body scanners available so that option was out for the ambassador. But a clear box hardly sounds private enough for anyone uncomfortable enough to request a private search. And if simply wearing a sari is going to trigger a serious full-body pat-down, then an actual private option should be offered, as it should be to anyone requesting a private search.
TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball says that less than 3 percent of passengers receive a pat-down, and he noted that “bulky clothing” among other factors could prompt a pat-down (Washington Post). Have you worn a sari through airport security recently? I haven’t, and I’m unlikely to do so. But I’ll admit that I drove instead of taking a flight two weeks ago when I visited my parents partly to avoid the blue-gloved pat-down possibility–time constraints won’t allow me to drive every time, though.
Previous pat-downs: Some reports mention that this is the second time in three months that Shankar has been singled out for a pat-down. Also, Kunjun reminded me of Continental Airlines’ frisking of former Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam last year before he boarded his flight to Newark. The airline did not find the president exempt from its policies, and it didn’t sound like Kalam minded much.