Metro

Complaint says TSA search of Muslim woman at Logan ‘bordered on sexual assault’

A Muslim civil rights group has filed a complaint with the federal Transportation Security Administration alleging that a search of a 54-year-old woman at Logan International Airport in May “bordered on a sexual assault.”

The Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations alleges that a female TSA agent placed a wand so far up a Muslim woman’s dress that it made contact with her genitals.

The council sent the complaint to a TSA official in Virginia and a Boston office for the agency on Wednesday. The group said that the woman, whose name was redacted from a copy of the complaint sent to the Globe, was traveling from the Boston airport to Denver on Mother’s Day weekend.

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The TSA agent allegedly placed a hand-held wand under the woman’s dress during an invasive search that traumatized her. The woman, who wears a traditional Muslim headscarf, thought she was targeted because she is Muslim, according to the complaint.

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The complaint marks the second time in recent months that TSA agents at Logan have been accused of conducting invasive searches of Muslim women. In March, a Harvard graduate student who was traveling to Washington, D.C., was allegedly forced to show agents stitches in her stomach from a recent surgery and her menstrual pad, according to the council.

The TSA has denied the March search was improper. The agency is unaware of the May 12 incident, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Michael McCarthy said the agency does not have a “formal complaint on record” before adding that “ . . . all allegations of improper behavior by a TSA employee are taken seriously and will be thoroughly investigated.”

“When in receipt of a complaint, we look into what occurred during the screening process to ensure all security protocols were followed and take appropriate action should an investigation substantiate the allegations,” he added.

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According to the complaint, the woman, a US citizen, Massachusetts resident, and married mother of three who typically wears a hijab and “long modest dresses,” arrived at a security screening area at Logan and placed her bags on a conveyor belt and her shoes and toiletries in a bin. She was looking forward to visiting her son, according to the council.

A female TSA agent told her she needed to pat the woman down and offered to take her to a private area, according to the group. The woman refused, the complaint said, because “she wanted others to see that they had nothing to fear from a Muslim traveler.” She was also hesitant to enter a private area with a worker who “already seemed hostile to her.”

During the search, the TSA worker “inserted” a metal detecting wand under the woman’s dress, the complaint said.

The woman was expecting her menstrual period, according to the complaint, and had “placed tissue in her underpants.” At one point, the worker “shoved either her hand or the wand high enough” under the woman’s dress “to make contact with her body and with enough force to push, through the leggings she was wearing, the tissue up into” the woman’s “external genitalia.” The woman, according to the complaint, flinched in shock. “She found this especially traumatizing as it happened in full view of other travelers,” read the complaint.

The search found nothing of concern in the woman’s clothing or on her body, according to the council.

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“She believes that the force applied to her genitals far exceeded any reasonable standard of professional behavior in such a situation,” read the complaint.

The council is requesting that the TSA investigate the behavior of the agents involved.

“It is appalling that a Muslim woman traveling to visit her son over Mother’s Day weekend would be sexually abused by airport security,” said Barbara J. Dougan, the council’s Massachusetts civil rights director.

She added: “TSA agents seemed determined to find a security threat in a Muslim woman’s belongings or on her body. When they couldn’t, they settled for degrading her. We demand an immediate investigation into the actions of the TSA agent who rammed equipment up into our client’s crotch. TSA’s job is to ensure passengers’ safety, not to assault them.”

The complaint comes less than a month after the American Civil Liberties Union alleged a TSA officer in Boston lifted a Muslim woman’s shirt to see abdominal sutures then asked her to open her pants. She was horrified, according to the ACLU, but complied, revealing a menstrual pad.

In an e-mail, McCarthy, the TSA spokesman, rejected the claim that a TSA officer asked that woman to open her pants.

“TSA officers do not ask passengers to remove clothing and our preliminary review of the incident indicated that the woman, on her own, unzipped her pants and exposed her groin area to the surprise of the TSA officers,” he said. “At no time did a TSA officer require removal of her slacks.”

Danny McDonald
can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com.