Traveling With The Respect You Deserve

Editor’s note: The phrase “laptop ban” describes the restrictions imposed in March 2017 by the United States and United Kingdom on electronic devices larger than smartphones in airline cabins. The U.K. ban applies to flights to the U.K. from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia; the U.S. ban applies to direct flights to the U.S. from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. It has been justified as a response to “specific, credible and reliable” intelligence about a terrorist threat.

“I hope that you travel safely and that you are treated with the respect you deserve throughout your travels.” (A recent email from my friend Michael Berman, who works at California State University Channel Islands)

“If only you would take off your headscarf…” (A Facebook message from an American friend who had lived in Egypt, responding to my asking whether he thought the recent travel ban might affect my ability to visit the United States later this year).

Many Arab and Muslim travelers (particularly men, but also women in headscarves) are used to struggling with their dignity when they travel to Western countries and are subject to frustrating and embarrassing experiences:

  1. -Being randomly checked more often than any definition of “randomness” would suggest—in my case around 50 percent of the time when traveling to the United States.
  2. -Being searched or frisked in humiliating ways—in Manchester Airport they put their hands inside my pants on two different trips.
  3. -Being occasionally taken to the side and questioned aggressively (often missing connecting flights—this has happened to others but not to me, yet).
  4. -Having to apply for a visa—and the visa application process itself.
  5. -Just the way people sometimes look at us in airports.

The list goes on—see this collection of stories in the Guardian. But if you are Arab or Muslim or know enough of us, you will be aware of many more examples.

This year is likely to be different, though. This year, the discourses around Muslims by Western politicians—and one in particular—have been more aggressive than usual. As have the actions—from executive orders on travel bans, to modifications of airport regulations so that people traveling from certain airports can no longer carry laptops and tablets with them on flights flying direct from a number of majority-Muslim countries to the United Kingdom or the United States.

I have two trips coming up, inshallah—one this week to the United Kingdom, to keynote the OER17 conference in London, and one to the United States in August, to co-teach a five-day track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab institute and to co-keynote that event at the University of Mary Washington, near Washington, D.C. For both trips, I had pre-booked flights that go through Heathrow, so the U.K. laptop ban applies to me. Both my trips are paid by the event organizers, and I am not going to ask them to re-route my flights for many reasons—one is cost, but another is that we chose those particular flights for good reasons in the first place.

My first reaction to the laptop ban on direct flights to the U.S. was to laugh. It’s an inconvenience, but people could re-route to go to the U.S. via European airports. I wrote a post and started a hashtag #LendMeALaptop and ended up raising a little bit of awareness at academic conferences that folks could ask conference organizers or participants to help them out with laptops. All my friends advised me NOT to put my laptop in checked baggage, as it could get damaged, stolen, or at least lost. So I’ve decided I’m leaving my laptop and tablets at home.

While I still think I will manage without my laptop (my presentations for this month’s conference are on Google slides, the majority of edits I need to make are doable from my Android smartphone, and I have many friends in London willing to lend me laptops for two days or two minutes). But I think the problem is bigger than that.

There is a technical level of disempowerment, of forcing me to not work on my conference presentation on the plane. But I have a child anyway, so I would probably not have worked on the plane—still, not having that option is disempowering.

And there is something much more fundamental at stake here—the sense of not being treated with respect in my travels. What my friend Michael was “wishing” for me. People usually wish each other “safe” travels; they don’t usually wish others “respectful treatment” in their travels. Right? My other friend, trying to be helpful (but failing miserably) suggested I take off the headscarf. I was surprised that someone who had lived in Egypt that long (and who was an otherwise very culturally sensitive person) would suggest something like that. And yet, as I felt the offense, I remembered how I traveled immediately after 9/11. I wore a hat instead of a headscarf. I remember also how I used to dress in Norwich, England (a small city with few Muslims, not at all like London.) There I used to wear a wool cap in winter, and people treated me differently when I started wearing a headscarf in summer.

Whether or not I cover my hair should not, however, be an excuse for someone to treat me with less respect. So this time, even though I am traveling with my child and want to protect her, I plan to travel dressed as I normally do in Egypt.

We are human beings who deserve respect. Not because we are academics, respected in our own fields of expertise (keynote speakers, even!), but because we are respectable human beings—we have not committed any crimes, and we deserve to be treated as such.

Right after the U.K. electronics ban came into place, London faced a terrorist incident in one of the most secure parts of London (Westminster) and near a tourist attraction we are booked to visit while we are there (The London Eye). I watched the news with trepidation and sadness for the families of the victims, hating the person who did it, and worrying for my own safety because, you know, being Muslim does not protect you from terrorist attacks. Being a Muslim traveler means you are just as vulnerable to the unlikely event of a terrorist attack, but also subject to the highly likely event of poor treatment, privacy violation and humiliation at airports. And this only builds resentment that the world does not need more of right now.

It could get worse, and it might, but it’s not at its worst yet. Every time I write an article like this one, I wonder if it will be a strike against me when I next apply for my U.S. visa. But, for now, I’m traveling without my laptop, holding onto my dignity, and hoping for the best.

If you’re an Arab or Muslim scholar (or anyone traveling through one of the countries facing this ban, really) and traveled to the West recently, what was your experience? Did you re-route your flight in order to take a laptop, did you risk checking your laptop in the luggage, or did you travel without it? Tell us in the comments.

Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.


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