Travel can be a hassle for most folks, but to describe what Zainab Merchant went through as a "hassle" would be the understatement of the century.
After a TSA agent patted her groin area, the Harvard University graduate student was instructed to head to a private screening room for "a deeper look," according to HuffPost.
As Zainab is a Muslim American, an outspoken activist and strongly suspects she is one of the 700,000 Americans on a semi-secret government airport watchlist known as the Terrorist Screening Database, she feared a private screening could end with her in jail or worse.
Fearing for her safety, she requested that the screening occur publicly, knowing what the TSA agent felt was her menstrual pad.
The agents refused to allow her to be searched in public and threatened to call in state troopers before leading Merchant into a private room and forcing her to reveal her bloody pad for inspection. The activist said she wasn't allowed to call her lawyer, and the agents involved covered their badges when she requested their names and badge numbers.
The 27-year-old has unfortunately experienced routine extra screenings during her travel since September 2016. She always arrives at the airport more than the suggested two hours before her fight to make time for them.
To get around the screenings, she applied for the TSA's Global Entry program but was denied.
The ACLU filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on Merchant's behalf citing, "excessive and humiliating searches, questioning, and detention by federal officers every time she has traveled by air or reentered the United States from a trip abroad."
“Every single time, I was being put through extra screening,” Merchant said. “It was the same exact thing every time. By the third time it happened, I realized this is not random. There is definitely a pattern to this, and I’m on some kind of list that is making me go through this again and again.”
The student and activist said the searches have gone beyond pat downs and chemical tests; she claims officials have asked her about ISIS, whether she is a Sunni or Shiite and have questioned her over opinions she has expressed on her website, Zainab Rights.
"This abusive treatment — most likely because she has been placed on a government watchlist — has affected her in profoundly negative ways, both psychologically and professionally," reads the ACLU complaint, posted on August 14 and signed by senior staff attorney Hugh Handeyside. "Yet the government refuses to tell her why it keeps happening or give her a meaningful chance to correct whatever error is causing it."
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told HuffPost CPB does “not comment on pending litigation” but claimed the department takes “all allegations seriously and investigates all formal complaints.”
Overall, Handeyside notes the sheer volume of these sorts of complaints points to a problem on a larger scale.
“We have every reason to believe that they are not just doing this to Zainab. We hear from other people presenting similar issues,” Handeyside said to HuffPost. “This is a major concern for members of Muslim communities, members of Arab or Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian communities.”
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