THE BLOG
12/10/2007 11:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Islamic Like Me: "Do You Have Sky Miles?"

Danielle Crittenden wore a burka for a week during her daily life in Washington, D.C. Click here to see a video of her experience, which appears in Canada's National Post. Click here to read previous posts.

Last of Four Parts: "Do You Have SkyMiles?"

"I'd like a one-way air fare to New York on the next available flight. I have no luggage. Could you make sure the ticket is refundable...in case I change my mind?"

I was standing at the Delta shuttle counter at Washington's Reagan National Airport, dressed in my Saudi burka.

"Sure, no problem," the clerk replied brightly. "Do you have Skymiles?"

"Uh, no."

"I'll need some form of identification."

I handed her my driver's license, which showed the occupant of the black tent to be a blonde, blue-eyed resident of the District of Columbia.

"Thanks." Tap, tap, tap at the keyboard. Out popped my boarding pass. "Have a great flight. Next passenger please."

I scooped up a plain black canvas carry-on bag and head over to the security line. I had no intention of flying to New York. This was an experiment. I'd become suspicious of the lack of suspicion I'd received during my week-long veiling. I'd encountered no fear, no hostility, hardly even any curiosity. If anything, my fellow Washingtonians showed unusual courtest to a woman in a burka.

And so it continued at the airport. The ticket agent had registered zero reaction when I'd approached the counter, except to offer an extra cheerful greeting: "Hi! Where are you travelling?"

It had been he same the day before on the Washington subway. I entered the train at morning rush hour carrying a large black backpack, which I clutched to my chest in the center of the train. With the exception of one elderly passenger who bolted up from his seat when I got on, scurrying to the most remote end of the carriage, everyone else aboard resolutely ignored my appearance. The woman closest to my mysterious backpack glanced up and then resumed her Blackberrying. Two women beside her carried on gossiping about their childrens' school. The huddle of office workers in the space by the doors appeared untroubled by me or my unusual parcel.

I can't know what they were thinking, obviously. A few must have wondered whether I was about to explode. But evidently they'd rather be blown up than exhibit any behavior that might be construed as intolerant.

And good for them, I suppose. "The vast majority of Muslims abhor terrorism," we are frequently reminded, and of course that's true. And yet, even tolerance can be taken too far.

If I had chosen to walk about Washington in a white hood and sheets rather than black ones, I doubt I would have encountered such universal politeness. And yet, what the Klan outfit represents to someone of African-American descent is exactly what the burka should represent to every free woman. Those who impose it upon women believe that a whole category of human beings can be treated as property; that this category may be beaten, sold into marriage, divorced at whim, denied education and work, raped with impunity, and stoned to death for offenses that would be pardoned in a man. For the wearer of the white hood, the subjugated category is defined by race. For the wearer of the black hood, it's defined by sex. Otherwise the two garments carry the same meaning--with the slight variation that one is worn by the would-be oppressor, the other by the oppressed.

Ironically, the few people who exhibited hostility to my costumer came from a Muslim immigrant group. Many of Washington's taxi drivers originated in Somalia. These drivers glowered at me in traffic. When I tried to hail a cab, four empty taxis drove past without stopping. My teenage son then stepped forward to flag one--and was picked up immediately.

Or maybe it's not so ironic: I'm sure many of those drivers fled their countries to escape the ideology represented by my burka. The native-born Americans, however, seemed determined to take the opposite view: to welcome me as a walking tribute to religious and ethnic tolerance in our free society.

Ditto for the security agents at Reagan National airport. The officer who checked my identification hailed me with a friendly "And how are you doing today, Ma'am?" He drew a red mark on my boarding pass. "You know the deal," he said, ushering me on.

I nodded, but thought, "Uh oh. What deal?" Maybe now I was to be regarded with suspicion?
I moved forward and struggled to remove my shoes (I couldn't see anything below my shoulders because of the face mask, but I was becoming adept at being partially blind). I placed them alongside my bag on the x-ray belt. But before I'd even approached the metal detector I heard a voice over the loudspeaker say, "Female assistance in Aisle 4."

Okay, now I was nervous. I wasn't sure how far I was willing to take this experiment. Certainly not so far as an internal examination...

A female guard signalled me to walk through the metal detector and then to enter a plexiglass passage off to the side. She said--So nicely! And with such a big smile!--"You have been selected for secondary screening," as if I'd won a grocery store sweepstakes.

I waited in the passage for about five minutes. I tried to remain calm. Another extremely pleasant female guard--"Right this way, hon"--let me out of the passage and directed me to an open search area just beyond the detectors. A grandfatherly man was already there, another lucky recipient of secondary screening. At least they hadn't directed me to a private room--yet.
Now two female guards--still friendly but definitely brisker in manner--told me to stand with my legs apart on a small mat. How they could tell if my legs were apart under the copious folds of the burka I didn't know. One of the guards began riffling through my passport while the other hesitated in front of me.

"Should I wand her?"

"Yes."

"She didn't set off the alarm." The guard was clearly uncomfortable that she may be breaching some sort of protocol.

"Wand her."

The guard obeyed, but not before saying to me, gently, "If it goes off you'll have to be physically patted in that area, okay?"

I then received the most thorough wanding I'd ever had. At no time, however, did they ask me to lift my cloak. They did it all through the burka. A male guard came over to inspect my tote bag. The woman wanding me said, apologetically, "He's going to touch your things but he'll have gloves on, okay?"

Meanwhile her colleague was puzzling over a stamp in my passport.

"What's this place?" she asked me. "I don't recognize it."

I squinted through my eye slit. "Warsaw."

"Oh." She smiled.

Their inspection of me was finished but the man had taken away my bag to be x-rayed another time. The guard who had been examining my passport pulled up a chair for me and another one for herself. She smiled again.

"I hope you know we're not doing this because you're dressed--you know--the way you are. It's because, well, your face on your identification is not what you'd expect for someone...in that kind of dress."

"I understand."

"May I ask you--and I don't want to cause offense, okay? So just let me know if I'm crossing a line here--but are you a convert?"

I couldn't tell if she was asking me this because she was trying to check my "story"--and thus assess my security risk--or whether she was just being chatty to pass the time until my bag returned. I assumed the former.

"Yes," I said. This was true. I am a convert, just not to Islam.

My answer unleashed a gush of questions about my beliefs and my outfit--"What drew you to your faith?" "Do all women have to dress like this? Because not all of them do obviously..."--each one of them painstakingly phrased so as not to "cause offense," and always with the option not to answer. I answered all her questions truthfully, if somewhat misleadingly, conveying everything I knew about the rules governing the burka. The male guard returned with my bag and stood listening a few feet away.

"This is really interesting," he interjected. "We don't usually get to hear about this."
"Yes, you're so open!" exclaimed his colleague.

"Do you have to wear black?"

"No," I replied. "But black is more traditional, more conservative. You blend more in."
"Not here." He laughed. "You stand out."

The woman began telling me about her religious upbringing. It was at this point I realized my security inspection was over, and I was now conducting an Islamic tutorial: Burkas 101. Other passengers selected for secondary screening came and went. I'd been held back for a good quarter hour.

Then the female guard, growing cautious again, asked if it was "culturally okay" for me to remove my face covering. "When women like you come through, we don't know what's 'correct.' Like if I want to see that your face matches your ID, can I ask you to show me your face?"

It's a good thing I was wearing a mask so the guard could not see my astonishment. The security agents at the airport serving the nation's capital--bare seconds of air distance from Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the White House--did not feel entitled to check the identities of veiled women. Clearly, they hadn't even received any special sort of instructions about it.

I assured the security agent that it was indeed okay for a woman officer to ask a veiled woman to show her face. More than okay! I stressed again and again: So long as only women saw my face I'd have no trouble removing my mask if you wanted to check my ID!! Really, it's fine...!

The guard nodded. "Thank you--you've been so helpful," she said, rising. "We don't want to keep you. Hey, have a great time in New York!"

And so I passed through security without ever having to show my face.

Fortunately, my ticket was refundable. Just as the friendly Delta agent had promised.