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Southwest Airlines Attendant Accused of Discriminating Against Muslim Woman in Hijab

Muna al-Takrouri (center right) says a Southwest flight attendant claimed she couldn't sit in an exit row because she doesn't speak English
Muna al-Takrouri (center right) says a Southwest flight attendant claimed she couldn't sit in an exit row because she doesn't speak English Patrick Strickland
Last month, Fatima al-Takrouri and her sister, Muna, visited their mother, who was ill in ICU in a Florida hospital. When they boarded a Dallas-bound flight to head home to North Texas, they hoped to sit together.

But a Southwest Airlines flight attendant insisted that Fatima couldn’t sit in one of the only two open seats that were next to one another, the sisters said at a press conference on Tuesday. The attendant said Muna was welcome to sit there but claimed Fatima couldn’t speak English and commented to other passengers that she “would bring down the whole plane.”

Muna and Fatima say they had been speaking in Arabic, but the sisters were both born in the United States. The flight attendant didn’t back down, even when Fatima spoke with her in English, she said. The only obvious difference between the two sisters? Fatima wears a hijab and Muna doesn’t.

The way Fatima tells it, the most difficult part was returning to her original seat, sitting separately from her sister for the flight's duration and not being able to do anything about it. “I felt like I was picked out and intimidated by the flight attendant on this flight,” she said. “It shouldn’t happen.”

Once the flight touched down in Dallas and passengers began to exit, the sisters said, they asked why the flight attendant had treated them that way. The flight attendant only ordered them to get off the plane.

“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 said.

Fatima has since filed a complaint with Southwest Airlines and another with the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to her lawyer Marwa Elbially. But the airline hasn’t gotten back to them yet.

“The only visible difference between these two American sisters is one wears a religious head covering, the other does not,” Elbially said.

Elbially described the incident as “religious discrimination,” and said that it’s in “direct violation of federal law.”

"The only visible difference between these two American sisters is one wears a religious head covering, the other does not." - Marwa Elbially, lawyer

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She added, “There is no valid basis for believing that Fatima does not speak English.”

Contacted by the Observer, a Southwest Airlines spokesperson said “the safety of our passengers is paramount, and individuals seated in exit rows must be able to perform certain duties.

“With that said, Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind,” Southwest added. “Since Southwest Airlines' inception, we have put people first and maintain a mutual respect for our fellow Southwest Airlines employees, our customers and the diverse communities that we serve.”

Faizan Syed, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) DFW chapter, said the problem boils down to more than poor training. "When we fly, we understand we have to act differently," he said. "This is something that's an example of a larger issue that's happening in America."

He said they hoped for an apology from Southwest Airlines. "Training is not the problem," he added. "Racism is the problem."

Fatima said, "Me being born here, I know my rights. I know when it's necessary to speak up … So, I'm doing this on behalf of myself and many other women out there who have been in the same shoes as I have." 
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.