Because of what I do, I spend a lot of time thinking about cultural differences. Whilst travelling recently, a simple procedure at an airport challenged my perceptions of how “culturally-sensitive” I really am, and got me thinking about the interconnectedness of modesty, security, and human rights.
After placing my backpack on the rolling belt that passes through the xray scanner at Dubai airport, I was directed to a separate metal detector queue for women. Odd, I think. Do the detectors have different sensitivities for women and men? Maybe women have less iron? But surely they have more jewellery? Pondering these questions, I silently slip through the portal and anxiously look to see if my luggage has emerged.
But before I can find out, a uniformed woman waves a flat, black wand at me and points to a curtained booth. I step inside and the curtain closes behind us. There’s a small wooden box, about 6 inches high and she motions for me to step on it. Standing on the box, I notice there’s a gap in the curtain at the top, allowing me to see out one side of the booth. Unfortunately it’s not the side facing the luggage belt, so I still don’t know the fate of my backpack. The women passes the wand over my body, it beeps at various points, the rivets in my jeans, the underwire in my bra. She finished by patting down my sternum and legs, before stamping my boarding pass and opening the curtain on the other side.
Travelling through India for the next few weeks, this curtain becomes a familiar sight at airports. Modesty is not just a virtue for many women in India and Arabic countries, it’s a human right. Being publically patted down, particularly in front of men, would be an extreme humiliation for many women, akin to removing their headscarves or veils. I understood this while happily going through this ritual at each airport.
But, not too long ago I was one of those people who, when seeing a story about someone complaining about having to remove their veil or headscarf thought, “well, it’s just a hat, it’s not like they’re having to take off their clothes.” But now, having travelled a fair bit in India, and experiencing how women are perceived, especially in regards to their clothing, I completely understand that asking some women to remove their headscarf or veil is tantamount to asking Western women to remove their shirt or jeans in public. The piece of clothing is different, but the degree of psychological humiliation is the same.
How difficult it must be for such women when they travel to other countries that don’t share the same perceptions of modesty. Every security check must be an exercise in maintaining one’s dignity in the face of humiliation.
The issue of modesty as a culturally-situated perception, of course, raises an interesting question : To what degree should governments and countries accommodate the “essential” human rights of other countries, such as privacy and modesty, especially when those rights are not perceived in the same light as the host country?
This topic has heated up recently as full body scans have been introduced at some US airports. These scans show a silhouette of a complete nude body and everything beneath a person’s clothes. If you opt out of these scans (which you might if you don’t want strangers looking at your nearly naked body, or if you’re worried that the x-rays or millimetre waves will damage your DNA) or are excluded from them because you have metal implants or prostheses, you must submit to an enhanced pat down in which the security agents can touch the breasts and genitals and pass their hands beneath your clothing. Neither is a great choice, but if you’re going to have someone moving their hands all over your body, at least you could have some privacy.
Should we simply accept this as a necessary security procedure and ignore our discomfort? Or should Governments and countries accommodate our basic human rights?
Here are a few interesting links on the subject:
Posted by PDD
Languages spoken: Global.
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
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