Waris Ahluwalia on the Aeroméxico turban controversy: 'This is an opportunity for change'

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Sikh Actor Barred From Flight For Refusing To Remove His Turban

Monday morning at 4 a.m., Waris Ahluwalia left his hotel to go to the Mexico City International Airport for his flight back to New York City. At check-in, around 5:15 by then, the actor and designer received his boarding pass at an Aeroméxico counter and noticed that it was printed at the bottom with "the four S's."

"I've gotten it before," he told me over the phone this afternoon, calling from Mexico City. "I've been randomly selected quite a number of times. It's like I'm defying the odds with the number of times I've been selected." The code stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection and it's a notifier to passengers and airline staff alike that the passenger is on one of three lists — whose number and names fluctuate — that require extra screening before being allowed to fly. "I knew that there was just going to be more screening, which is understandable," Ahluwalia explained. "There's nothing you can do, there's no redress, no one you can call and ask why is this going on. You just sort of grin and bear it."

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Waris Ahluwalia on the Aeroméxico turban controversy: 'This is an opportunity for change'
Actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia attends an interview with Reuters in Mexico City, Mexico, February 9, 2016. Aeromexico has issued a directive to its staff stressing respect for actor Waris Ahluwalia and others who wear religious headwear after he was barred from flying on the airline out of refusal to remove his turban, according to the popular star. The American-Indian actor was reportedly turned away from his flight from Mexico City to New York for not allegedly taking off his turban for security screening. Picture taken February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Actor Waris Ahluwalia poses during a portrait session on day seven of the 12th annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 15, 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF)
Toronto, Canada - September, 12 2015 - Waris Ahluwalia is acting in film Beeba Boys at TIFF and seen at the Intercontinental Hotel. TIFF15 (Toronto International Film Festival) September 12, 2015 (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 16: (L-R) Jennifer Hudson, Waris Ahluwalia, and Santigold attend DKNY Women's Spring 2016 during New York Fashion Week: The Shows on September 16, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: Waris Ahluwalia attends W Magazine NKPR IT Lounge Studio at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Sonia Recchia/WireImage)
Actor Waris Ahluwalia is interviewed following the showing of her Edun Fall 2011 collection during Fashion Week, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: (L-R) Actors Ali Kazmi, Waris Ahluwalia, Ali Momen attend the 'Beeba Boys' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival held at Roy Thomson Hall on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jeremychanphotography/WireImage)
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 14: Actor Waris Ahluwalia attends the 'Beeba Boys' premiere during day six of the 12th annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 14, 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for DIFF)
Actress Julia Stiles, left, and actor Waris Ahluwalia, right, talking with girlfriend Chiara Clemente, wait for the showing of the The fall 2009 collection of Cynthia Rowley during Fashion Week, Monday, Feb. 16, 2009, in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15: Waris Ahluwalia (C) attends Tory Burch Spring 2016 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on September 15, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Tory Burch)
From left, U.S. actor Bill Murray, U.S. actor Wally Wolodarsky, writer Roman Coppola, the son of Francis Ford Coppola, U.S. actor Adrien Brody, U.S. director Wes Anderson, U.S. actor Jason Schwartzman and actor Waris Ahluwalia pose during the photo call of the movie "The Darjeeling Limited" in competition at the 64th Venice Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: Actor Waris Ahluwalia attends the 'Beeba Boys' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: Actor Waris Ahluwalia attends the 'Beeba Boys' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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Ahluwalia went through one round of standard screening before approaching the gate, when a staff member from the airline told him to step aside, that they'd need to do the as-expected additional check. He obliged and agents carried out the same security routine: "the wanding, the padding, the swabbing, the going through the bag, swabbing the bag." It was all protocol that Ahluwalia had experienced before, except this time when he was asked to remove his turban, the procedure took a new turn.

"They asked very matter-of-factly, and just as matter-of-factly, I said I won't be removing my turban." Ahluwalia requested a private screening room to do so, but was denied, and soon after, an Aeroméxico employee approached and explained that he wouldn't be boarding a flight on their airline that day.

"In that very moment that they were doing all this, I was shaken up," he told me. "I wasn't about to argue with them. They were pretty clear and concise in their messaging. I'm not going to chase the guy in the airport and get arrested in Mexico." So what was Ahluwalia to do? From the airport, he got on the phone with the Sikh Coalition, a civil-rights organization for the Sikh community in America. They then got their lawyers on the phone to figure out a game plan while Ahluwalia went online to share what was happening.

Ahluwalia only joined Instagram in November, in part to promote his efforts with the Elephant Family, a conservation charity. But today he started to see its multitudinous values: "In this moment, there was a feeling and a sense of empowerment," he said. "It wasn't just lawyers and people talking. I could send out a message into the world that really basic rights were ignored." He continued, "The Sikh Coalition has worked with the TSA to educate the agents and to come up with a policy on how to address this. We've been down this road before. This isn't the first time this happened." This time, however, Ahluwalia could see in real time the way social media spread the news. Not that much longer after his first Instagram, an Aeroméxico executive approached him to put him on the next flight.

"At that point, it was too little, too late," he said, explaining why he decided to turn down the offer. "I realized in that moment that the problem was that if I got on that plane, this could not only happen again but would happen again." Instead, Ahluwalia has vowed to stay in Mexico until a broader conclusion has been reached. For him, this means a public apology from Aeroméxico and a plan for further employee training (either through the Sikh Coalition or independently) on sensitivity to religious passengers."It's not just about me. It's not just about Sikhs. If what happens to me today results in a policy change so that no one else has to go through this, then it was worth it."

Until then, Ahluwalia says he plans to stay exactly where he is in Mexico. "When we reach a crossroads, we have an opportunity to change," he said. "We all make mistakes. I'll admit very publicly that I make mistakes constantly. You can ask all my ex-girlfriends," he told me, laughing. "It's not that you make the mistakes, it's how you address them. It's about how you deal with them afterward. We're in this together. Let's learn from this. There's ignorance in the world, so let's see what we can do."


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