Waris Ahluwalia on the Aeroméxico Turban Controversy: ‘This Is an Opportunity for Change’

House of Waris founder and designer Waris Ahluwalia.
House of Waris founder and designer Waris Ahluwalia. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

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.”

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.” 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.”

*Based on previous reports, an earlier version of this story said that Ahluwalia requested a private room. Ahluwalia confirmed to the Cut that staff walked away after he refused to remove his turban, but he had not requested a private screening room.

Waris Ahluwalia: ‘It’s Not Just About Me’