A Muslim American woman has alleged that a Southwest Airlines flight attendant forced her to move from her seat on the emergency exit row because she “couldn’t speak English” and “would bring the whole plane down in an emergency”.
Fatima Altakrouri and her sister Muna Kowni were traveling from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Dallas, Texas, on May 22.
“We were down there for a family emergency, my mom was dying in the hospital, so we were expecting at least to have a good flight back home, stress-free,” Muna told media sources.
The flight had unassigned seating and the sisters spotted two free seats together in an emergency exit row and sat down.
A flight attendant allegedly then told them Fatima, who is the only one of the pair to wear a hijab, would need to move as she could not speak English.
The sisters admitted speaking Arabic when boarding but said both speak excellent English. However, the flight attendant didn’t back down, even when Fatima spoke to her in English.
“I took it just as a terrorist comment,” Fatima said. “That makes me look like I am some kind of terrorist and I am not.”
Fearing the situation would escalate, Fatima and her sister moved to seats at the back of the plane.
On May 22, Fatima filed a complaint against the flight attendant with Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. Southwest never responded to her complaint, she said.
A complaint has now been filed with the US Department of Transportation, according to Fatima’s lawyer Marwa Elbially, who described the incident as “religious discrimination” and said that it’s in “direct violation of federal law”.
“Me being born here, I know my rights,” Fatima said. “I know when it’s necessary to speak up. I’m doing this on behalf of the many other women that have been in the same shoes as I have.”
In a statement to NBC 5, a Southwest Airlines spokesman wrote, “Our reports do not support claims made by the passenger. Individuals seated in an exit row are required to verbally indicate that they can perform certain duties inflight.”
Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Texas, said Southwest responded only when Fatima went public with her complaint on Tuesday.
Syed said in a press release, the situation was “textbook religious discrimination and religious profiling” based on the flight attendant’s attitude toward Fatima, who was wearing the hijab, and Fatima’s sister, who was not wearing one.
“As an American Muslim, when we fly, we understand we have to act different,” he said. “This is an example of a larger issue that’s happening in America with our community constantly, where when we travel, there is an extra layer of stress.”
“Flying While Muslim” is a sardonic term that gained wide use following countless incidents that have occurred in airports and airplanes in recent years. Muslims getting kicked off airplanes for speaking Arabic or women dressing in Muslim clothes is just one example.