News & Opinion


Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia to fly home after turban flight ban

The Daily Beast

February 10, 2016

Waris Ahluwalia, the 41-year-old Sikh actor and designer banned from flying home to New York from Mexico City on an Aeroméxico flight after he refused to remove his turban, wants “clear and concise guidelines” to be issued for the TSA and airlines on “how to deal with those wearing religious headwear.”

Ahluwalia told The Daily Beast the advice should apply “across all international airports and take into account cultural sensitivity and respect individuals’ civil rights.”

Ahluwalia, who lives in New York’s West Village, was speaking from Mexico City Tuesday afternoon, where he was waiting to receive assurance from Aeroméxico that its staff would receive cultural sensitivity training.

That assurance apparently came Tuesday night: the Sikh Coalition, which had been supporting Ahluwalia, announced via Twitter that Aeroméxico had supplied such an assurance, and that the actor would be flying home on Wednesday.

Ahluwalia, who has appeared in films including The Grand Budapest Hotel, told The Daily Beast he was grateful for Aeroméxico’s “thoughtful apology” for what had happened.

The airline had held Ahluwalia back from boarding his flight Monday morning, before—the actor told the New York Daily News—searching his bag, swabbing him and patting him down.

Then staff asked him to remove his turban in public, rather than in a private room.

“That is not something that I would do in public, Ahluwalia told the Daily News. “That’s akin to asking someone to take off their clothes.”

Ahluwalia told The Daily Beast that, in accordance with the current guidelines, he would have accepted a request to remove the turban in private.

Media attention and widespread social media outrage followed Ahluwalia posting an Instagram of himself holding his ticket, with the TSA’s ‘SSSS’ (Secondary Security Screening Selectee) classification on it.

He continued posting Instagram messages, while waiting for Aeroméxico to make clear its intentions to educate and train its staff.

“I’m not being detained here,” Ahluwalia, said with a little laugh. “I’m here on my own free will. It’s a process. I think Aeroméxico are working through it. It’s a corporation. I’m sure there are layers and levels. I’m hopeful we can come to this sooner rather than later, so I can get home as soon as possible.”

Ahluwalia said he’d been asked at other airports to remove his turban, and had then “had the wand” passed over his clothing, which—because it hadn’t pinged—had meant that he could keep his turban on. “It’s never come to asking me not to get on the plane,” he said of what happened Monday.

Ahluwalia said he had been “upset in the moment, and a little bit shaky.” The ‘SSSS’ classification—which is a mystery to him, and “wishes” someone would explain to him—symbolized “the love triangle” between him, Aeroméxico, and the TSA.

“Why am I on this list?” Ahluwalia said, laughing wryly. “Is it because they don’t like my films, or the previous fashion collections I’ve made? I’m an American citizen, it’s well-documented what I do. If it’s because I’ve been to certain countries, or my travel patterns, then fine: it would be good to know what it is.”

Annoyed and frustrated in the moment in Mexico City, he realized that he “had to do something,” which was when he posted his first Instagram picture.

Aeroméxico executives, who Ahluwalia believes had seen the message on Instagram and the social media response to it, offered him a boarding pass for the next flight.

“At that moment I realized it wasn’t about me,” said Ahluwalia. I could have gotten on that plane and gone home, but I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about a larger problem. What happens to the next person that this happens to? What recourse do they have?

“This is not just happening to me, there is a larger problem to be addressed—not just at airports. This is part of a larger conversation about race, profiling, a lack of education, ignorance. The best way to fight those things is through education. That’s what we’re here for, to get understanding. The easiest thing to lean into is fear and anger. All the other emotions require work. We have to be vigilant and be aware of the situation and combat it with love, kindness, and tolerance.”

Ahluwalia was born in India, and his family moved to New York when he was 5.

“My memory is only of New York, my consciousness only knows America. But after 9/11, in my own city, people looked at me with anger. I was like, ‘Look away from me with that face.’ I grew up on these streets, I was here when the World Trade Center was attacked, that horrific moment. I suffered as a New Yorker. But after that, I experienced intense amounts of religious bias.”

The Sikh Coalition, said Ahluwalia, had been recording increasing amounts of violence against Sikhs in the U.S.
Ahluwalia himself was assaulted by a man who “punched me in the face out of nowhere. I was taken to hospital. I wore an eye patch for weeks—and still the retina of my right eye doesn’t open and close. I had perfect vision at one point, my friend.”

Ahluwalia said he believed that America prized religious freedom, “but it’s our job as citizens to ensure the country upholds the constitution.” His incident, alongside the presence a movement like Black Lives Matter, he said showed that the U.S. was “still dealing with civil rights issues,” decades after that movement blossomed.

He said that he hoped the conversation with Aeroméxico would “end beautifully with a hug,” and that he could travel home, hopefully with Aeroméxico, as soon as possible.

This seems to have happened, and Ahluwalia insisted that taking a stand was in no way a publicity stunt.

“If I had gotten on the plane what would have happened? Nothing. No change, no policy. No conversation no dialog. If I’d left it, the next Sikh male coming through Mexico City airport would very likely have gone through the same thing.”

Time will tell how successful Ahluwalia’s imaginative and effective one-man campaign has been.