Perception is Reality for Sikhs in Americas

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By Aseem Kulkarni

MEXICO: On the morning of February 8, the actor, model, fashion and jewelry designer, and all around 21st century Renaissance man Waris Ahluwalia, was denied entry into an Aeromexico plane because of his turban.

According to Ahluwalia, he arrived at the gate to board his flight from Mexico City to New York and was told to step aside and be subjected to a very thorough pat down.

Ahluwalia agreed to it for the sake of  necessary security measures, until they asked him to remove his turban. Being a follower of Sikhism, removing one’s turban is deeply personal as it represents commitment and accountability to Sikh Gurus as well as a symbol of being a servant to the diving presence. He stated that the turban was a symbol of  his faith, that he always wore it in public, that it’s similar to asking someone to get naked, and that he would not take it off. He was told that he would be denied access to his flight and would have to book another one.

The actor then took to social media and posted pictures on Instagram including his boarding pass and another with him in front of an Aeromexico customer service kiosk.

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Actor Waris Ahluwalia with his Aeromexico boarding pass (left) and his appearance in an ad for Gap.

In a statement, Aero Mexico said Ahluwalia “was asked to submit to screening and inspection before boarding, in strict compliance with TSA protocol,” and that the airline offered him alternatives to fly home. Aero Mexico did not apologize but said, “We sincerely regret any inconvenience caused by this incident.” Unfortunately for AeroMexico, Waris Ahluwalia, who has starred in films such as Inside Man, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Darjeeling Limited, as well as the Gap ad campaign Make Love, also happens to be one of the leading Sikh American advocates and social activists.

Waris Ahluwalia’s incident with Aeromexico simply points to the continued ignorance turban-wearing Sikhs face in the West. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a taxi driver to Ajaypal Singh Banga, the president and CEO of Mastercard, wearing a turban guarantees you a life of frequent humiliation.

Whether it be a “random” search by TSA before boarding a flight, vandalism and violent attacks on gurdwaras such as the attack on Oak Creek Wisconsin killing 6 , or the subtle and not so subtle taunts about “wearing a rag”, there is a long way to go for respecting and protecting the freedom of religious expression.