ACLU of Illinois Challenges Ethnic and Religious Bias in Strip Search of Muslim Woman at O'Hare International Airport
"I felt as though the security personnel had singled me out because I didn't belong, wasn't trusted and wouldn't be welcomed in my own country"
ACLU: Press Release
Wednesday, January 16, 2002
|Samar Kaukab, 22, a victim of a degrading strip search at O'Hare Airport
CHICAGO--An Illinois National Guardsman and three private security personnel at O'Hare International Airport engaged in an unnecessary, unjustified, illegal and degrading search of a 22-year-old United States citizen of Pakistani descent last November, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal district court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
In its complaint, the ACLU said that Samar Kaukab was pulled out of a group of airline passengers and subjected to repeated and increasingly invasive searches based on her ethnicity and her religion. Ms. Kaukab's religion was evident because she was wearing a traditional head covering for Muslim women known as a hijab.
“Ms. Kaukab was identified and subjected to a humiliating search not because she posed any security threat, but only because her wearing of a hijab identified her as a Muslim,” said Lorie Chaiten, a lawyer for the ACLU of Illinois. “Security personnel surrounded her, detained her and subjected her to an embarrassing and degrading search simply based on her ethnicity and religion.”
The ACLU lawsuit asserts that the intrusive search of Ms. Kaukab violated the United States Constitution's guarantees of freedom of religion, freedom from unlawful ethnic and religious discrimination and protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
"The entire experience was degrading," said Ms. Kaukab at a news conference today announcing the lawsuit. "I felt as though the security personnel had singled me out because I didn't belong, wasn't trusted and wouldn't be welcomed in my own country. Nothing like this ever happened to me before. When it was over, I went to the restroom to gather my emotions and telephoned my mother. I was just so humiliated."
The complaint filed today asks the federal district court to issue an injunction preventing any future unreasonable searches or searches based upon ethnic and religious discrimination, in addition to monetary damages.
The ACLU cited the harassment of Ms. Kaukab as one of the numerous documented instances across the nation in which Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern descent have been the target of discrimination. The ACLU noted that these acts of discrimination have taken place predominantly in the travel industry, especially for passengers on commercial airlines.
“Many of our nation's highest public officer holders have publicly decried any acts of discrimination or violence being directed at Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern descent,” said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois. “This case is symptomatic, however, of the fact that these same public officials have not provided appropriate training and oversight to ensure that no person is singled out for abuse and discrimination based upon their ethnicity and religion.”
Ms. Kaukab, a citizen of the United States and resident of Columbus, Ohio, was traveling home on November 7, 2001, after attending a conference in Chicago hosted by Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Ms. Kaukab and a number of attendees from the VISTA conference traveled to O'Hare, checked their luggage and proceeded to the security checkpoint in Terminal 1 of the airport.
According to the ACLU’s complaint, Ms. Kaukab passed through the metal detector without setting off the machine. A member of the Illinois National Guard present at the security station then approached an employee of Argenbright Security and insisted that Ms. Kaukab be searched further despite the fact that there was no indication that she was carrying any banned materials on her person or in her carry-on bags.
Following the instruction from the National Guardsman, a security employee repeatedly passed a handheld metal detector over Ms. Kaukab's body, including placing the metal detector into Ms. Kaukab's boots. In addition, the security employee patted Ms. Kaukab's upper body and pulled at the straps and hook on her bra, the ACLU complaint said.
As a crowd of persons gathered -- some delayed by the search of Ms. Kaukab and others simply watching the event -- a security guard passed the handheld metal detector slowly over and around Ms. Kaukab's head. Although the security device was not "set off" on any occasion when passed over and around Ms. Kaukab's head, a security employee, again based upon instruction from the National Guardsman, demanded that Ms. Kaukab remove her hijab.
Ms. Kaukab responded by telling the security personnel that she could not remove the hijab in public, but would be willing to do so in a private location and only in the company of women. She made it clear that this was not an attempt to be uncooperative, but was necessary as part of her religious beliefs. After a further conversation with the National Guardsman, the security employee repeated the demand that the hijab be removed in public, ignoring Ms. Kaukab's pleas.
“The security personnel and the National Guardsman were completely insensitive to Ms. Kaukab's religious beliefs. Moreover, there was no valid security concern to justify her removing her hijab,” said Chaiten. “The search continued to escalate even though Ms. Kaukab passed through the metal detector without incident, and further searches produced no indication of anything being hidden beneath her hijab. The escalating nature of the search was completely unjustified.”
After further discussions between the security personnel and the National Guardsman, Ms. Kaukab was escorted to a small office area adjacent to the security checkpoint. Despite repeated objections from Ms. Kaukab, the male employee insisted on entering the small room with her and conducting the search. After Ms. Kaukab again asserted her religious beliefs and requested that a woman conduct any search involving the removal of her hijab, the male security employee finally acceded to her request and she entered the private area with two female employees.
Once the hijab had been removed, one of the security personnel ran her fingers through Ms. Kaukab's hair and over her scalp. The security employee then felt around her neck and collarbone, opened her sweater and felt around her chest and breasts and felt up and down her legs on the outside of her pants. The security employee then unbuttoned and unzipped Ms. Kaukab's pants, opened her pants and patted down her lower abdomen and between her legs over her underwear.
At no time did security personnel discover any contraband, nor did the initial searches with the metal detectors give any indication that contraband might be present, suggesting no reason for the escalation of the search, the ACLU said in its complaint.
Abruptly, the security personnel ended the search and released Ms. Kaukab, who said she felt frightened and humiliated by the entire event.
“During the entire experience, I was scared not only by what was happening, but also by what might happen next,” said Ms. Kaukab. "I kept wondering what else might happen to me - would I be detained or subjected to a body cavity search.”
Lawyers for the ACLU of Illinois noted that the search of Ms. Kaukab fits an emerging pattern in which security personnel at airports target Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern descent. Recent media reports indicate that many Muslims have been subjected to unnecessary harassment and searches because of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. One such incident involves security personnel surrounding a 17-year-old Muslim high school student from Virginia, and intimidating her into removing her hijab in public.
The lawsuit names Major General David Harris, Adjutant General for the Illinois National Guard, and Argenbright Security, Inc., as defendants for their personnel's role in the treatment of Ms. Kaukab.
Charles Peters, Laura Weinberg and Carolyn Morehouse of the Chicago law firm Schiff, Hardin & Waite and Kamran Memon, a Chicago attorney in private practice, are assisting lawyers from the ACLU of Illinois in this case.
A legal complaint in the case is available online at