Sikhs laud new airport rules for passengers with turbans

Oct. 21--Many Valley Sikhs who felt singled out by new federal rules that give screeners more discretion to inspect turbans are breathing a sigh of relief after learning they won't be forced to remove their turbans after all.

The Transportation Security Administration has agreed to allow alternative methods of inspecting turbans for those who are uncomfortable about removing them in public.

"This is a really big achievement for the Sikh community," said Harry Gill, a Sikh community leader from Caruthers. "I'm getting a lot of e-mails. ... Everyone is saying it was the right thing."

Gill helped mobilize a signature-gathering effort after the administration implemented new guidelines Aug. 4 that gave airport screeners the option of examining turbans and other head gear even in cases when a metal detector does not go off. Before the change, screeners were allowed to inspect turbans only if a metal detector went off.

In Sikhism, long, unshorn hair is a symbol of spiritualism, and the turban is a symbol of royalty and dignity. The turban is mandatory for baptized Sikh men, and optional -- though uncommon -- for women, who tend to wear headscarves, at least inside the temple.

About 35,000 Sikhs live in Fresno County.

After the new rules were announced, Sikhs gathered signatures to urge local members of Congress to change them. The administration announced Tuesday that it revised the rules. The new policy will go into effect Saturday.

Under the policy change, screeners will have different options when checking passengers who choose not to remove a turban. They can pat down a traveler, swab the turban, or use a machine that blows puffs of air to detect traces of explosives. Private screening also is offered.

Nico Melendez, an administration spokesman, declined to comment on whether the policy change was made because of complaints from the Sikh community.

"We dialogue with very different groups, and we take all of them into consideration," Melendez said.

Fresno Yosemite International Airport doesn't have the machine that blows puffs of air to detect traces of explosives, but it does have the swabbing device, Melendez said.

"These are less invasive," said Naindeep Singh of Fresno who, like Gill, wears a turban. "They can be done in a culturally sensitive way. ... Basically it's still addressing the security needs."

The reporter can be reached at vcolon@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6313.

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