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Some searching questions

At my first immigration check outside India, I realised that I was being viewed within a frame of three identities: a woman, a South Asian and a Muslim. Soon, it became obvious that this triple identity was a challenging combination for the security and immigration personnel, writes Syeda Hameed.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2009 22:41 IST

Last week, I returned from Canada where I had gone on a personal visit. Having completed my first term at the Planning Commission, I was travelling on my personal passport. In my five-year tenure as Member, Planning Commission, I had visited North America only once, in 2006, to represent India at the UN Commission on Status of Women. At the time, I had a diplomatic passport and was accorded protocol everywhere. But this time around, I had a discounted ticket and was, as usual, wearing a sari.

At my first immigration check outside India, I realised that I was being viewed within a frame of three identities: a woman, a South Asian and a Muslim. Soon, it became obvious that this triple identity was a challenging combination for the security and immigration personnel.

At Toronto airport, a security guard beckoned me for a body check. I complied. She then scrutinised the safety pin I had used to keep my sari pallu in place. My hand baggage contained a hand lotion that she tossed in the trash, saying, “It is too big.”

Meanwhile, my sister, was trying to convince another security guard to allow her to place her manicure set in her checked-in luggage. I went over to the counter to help my sister. “What language do you guys speak?” the guard asked us pronouncing each word slowly for our ‘benefit’. I wanted to say, “Hindi, English, Persian, Arabic, even French and Spanish.” But I said nothing. Eventually, the manicure set was tossed out.

On the return journey, I had to transit through Frankfurt, Germany. Once again, the search ritual was re-enacted. We had to place our purses, ornaments, shawl and jacket in military green plastic containers, which came to us on a conveyor belt. Having done so, a German security guard did a body search. When she made me sit on a stool in her little cubicle, I panicked. She then asked me to remove my shoes, which she picked up with a pair of tongs and walked off somewhere. Then I saw that she had placed them on the moving khaki tray for a second check. Later, she said, “Ok, you are good”, throwing the shoes at my feet. I returned to India. The sight of our own immigration officials was a relief. They were unsmiling, slow, matter-of-fact but certainly not insulting. To foreign visitors, they were courteous.

There is an old story of Khalifa Haroun Al Rashid, who used to go among his people in the guise of a common man to understand the problems of the common people. I had gone one step further. Shorn of the official robes, I had experienced the travails of the ordinary Indian woman traveller, who also carries a Muslim name. At all security posts, my presence had invoked scrutiny, suspicion and hostility.

As always, I returned thinking I can never go through this again - a frame of mind I have had to shelve every time the longing to see loved ones makes me return to the West. As the poet Asadullah Khan Ghalib said, “Dil phir tawaaf e koo e malaamat ko jaaey hai’ (The heart returns to the place where insults are heaped).

Syeda Hameed is Member, Planning Commission.