Since September 2016, 27-year-old Zainab Merchant — an American citizen — has faced a series of "intrusive, humiliating searches" every time she has gone through airport security in the United States. It has happened so many times that the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on Merchant's behalf. Most recently, TSA officers allegedly made Merchant expose her menstrual pad during a private screening.
According to Merchant, who is a graduate student at Harvard University, this incident took place as she was preparing to travel from Boston to Washington, D.C. for a speaking engagement. Merchant told The Huffington Post that she always arrives at the airport well in advance because she expects Transportation Security Administration officers to put her through additional screenings, pat-downs, and baggage inspections.
What she did not expect, however, was to be subjected to a private screening in which she was allegedly asked to pull down her pants and underwear while on her period. Merchant told The Huffington Post that she was not allowed to contact her lawyer, and that the TSA officials who conducted the private screening would not divulge their names and badge numbers. This incident is indicative of "a clear pattern" in Merchant's travel experiences, according to the ACLU.
Last week, the ACLU suggested that Merchant was being subjected to unfair blacklisting as the result of being placed on a government terrorism watchlist, which is what prompted the organization to help her file a complaint. In a statement emailed to Bustle on Thursday, TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said that "the Department of Homeland Security can neither confirm nor deny whether someone is on a watch list or provide any information about an individual who may be on federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information."
In an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post last week, Merchant recounted numerous occasions in which she had been stopped and subjected to additional searches every time she boarded a flight or re-entered the U.S. after an international trip. Once, when she and her family returned to the U.S. from a trip to Canada, Merchant wrote that they were detained overnight by border officers in a warehouse.
Was it the fact that she was Muslim that prompted TSA officers to stop her every time she traveled, Merchant wondered, or was it because she had once traveled to Iran with her family? When she sought "redress" from the DHS, she reportedly received a letter back informing her that while the department could not confirm or deny whether she was on a watchlist, it nonetheless could not "ensure your travel will be delay-free."
According to USA Today, Merchant has also been asked for her phone passcode during an airport security screening, and she reluctantly provided it in order to avoid further travel delays. Merchant expressed concern, however, about male TSA officers seeing photos of her without her headscarf, and stated in an ACLU lawsuit that security officials appeared to have perused her Facebook friends list during one such search.
In response to what it described as "Zainab's terrible experience," the ACLU has called on the DHS to not only stop singling Merchant out, but also to investigate its security officials' conduct and turn over pertinent records.