For US airport security, saree seems to be the hardest word

For US airport security, saree seems to be the hardest word

Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN, Dec 9, 2010, 12.23pm IST

WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI: Security in the United States is never having to wear…a saree? India’s ambassador to Washington, Meera Shankar, who brings sartorial grace and poise to the largely grey-suited diplomatic world with her elegantly draped sarees, found that hard-headed American airport security personnel are not as easily wowed as mandarins at the State Department and the White House. The Indian envoy was subjected to an enhanced security pat-down at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi last weekend ostensibly because she was dressed in India’s national female attire, which is also her stock-in-outfit.

Shankar, who is nearing the end of her posting in WashingtonDC, was on her way back to Capital after an address to the Janos Radvanyi Chair in International Security Studies at Mississippi State University and other engagements in the state during her first visit there, including meetings with state government officials, when she ran into the security flap.

According to accounts in the local media, Shankar was escorted to the airport by a host representative and an airport security officer. At the security screening, she was asked to step aside for a pat-down although she had presented her diplomatic credentials, and despite having not set off any alarms when she passed through the metal detector. The ostensible reason for the secondary screening was her saree’d attire.

While Transport and Security Administration (TSA) guidelines do not expressly exempt foreign dignitaries from security checks, officials have discretionary powers, and diplomats are typically subjected to normal screening after they present their diplomatic credentials, particularly when they are accompanied by other security escorts. In this case, Shankar was not only asked to step aside for a secondary screening, but also put through a pat-down that was rather public, although TSA guidelines stipulate that the screening has to be conducted in private if the passenger so demands.

The Indian Embassy did not comment on the incident, while a spokesman for the TSA said the screening was in accordance with security procedures.

But eyewitnesses had a different take, saying Shankar was the only passenger to be singled out for secondary screening among at least 30 and it was clear that her saree was the reason for the TSA alert. Also at issue was the matter of privacy while screening.

“She is a very strong woman, but you could see in her face that she was humiliated,” Tan Tsai, a research associate at MSU’s International Security Studies center who witnessed the screening told the local Clarion-Ledger newspaper. “The Indian culture is very modest.”

Shankar’s hosts acknowledged the security goof-up, apologized on their part, and blamed overzealous federal security personnel for the episode. “Although I understand we need proper security measures to protect the passengers in U.S. airports, I regret the outrageous way Indian Ambassador Shankar was treated by the TSA while visiting Jackson,” the state’s Lt.Governor Phil Bryant said, hoping that it would not deter her from coming back to the state.

Janos Radvanyi, the Hungarian diplomat-academic at whose invitation Shankar visited Jackson, said he plans to send a formal apology letter to the ambassador, and he expects other state and university leaders will, as well. “Mississippi had nothing to do with it, but she was very upset,” he told the Clarion-Ledger. “It’s terrible.”

Radvanyi said he also will reach out to Mississippi’s congressional delegation, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. “This is very bad for Mississippi,” he added. “She said she’s not going to come back.”

The issue of enhanced screening and pat-downs has roiled the United States. Flaps over security is not specific to Indians, diplomats or otherwise. Many American citizens, not to speak of foreign nationals, are in a tizzy over new screening guidelines, even as the TSA and other federal agencies grapple to strike a balance between optimizing security and inconveniencing passengers, while terrorists work on ever newer ways to beat the system.

Read more: For US airport security, saree seems to be the hardest word – The Times of India


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