Why airport security may have a problem with women

For me, there are four stressful stages at the start of a trip abroad.

First, arriving at the airport on time, having remembered everything, including my passport.

Then the anxiety induced by the long queues at check-in and the final relief of seeing my luggage whizzing by on the conveyor belt (perhaps never to be seen again, according to some recent experiences, but we live in hope.)

Then there’s the exit through immigration, which is relatively smooth these days if the e-passport machines are working and enough of them are open.

The very last hurdle – and it sometimes feels like a hurdle race that no one wants you to win – is safety. This is my least favorite step, although I understand why we need it and think security personnel around the world generally do a good job under pressure.

But it’s flawed, as journalist Louise Milligan discovered a few weeks ago during a search at Sydney airport that she found humiliating. Although the man going through the body scanner in front of her was allowed to keep his thick sweater on, Milligan was asked to remove her fitted jacket, even though she wore a skimpy camisole underneath.

Other passengers, mostly women, made similar complaints. Women were asked to remove fitted shirts and jackets and undergo pat-downs, while some men wore coats. Security personnel in Milligan’s case were all male. There seemed to be a lack of sensitivity towards women’s modesty, to say the least. Sydney Airport later apologised.

New body scanners are so powerful that they detect the underwires of women’s bras like zippers. Sometimes that means a full search before you’re allowed to collect your carry-on luggage and rush out the door.

I have not liked these scanners since their introduction and have tried, often unsuccessfully, to choose the line that treats people through the old ones. For some strange reason, the machine in Sydney always highlights a small square under my right arm, which means I get stopped every time. There is no explanation of what it is. Maybe I swallowed a missing earring and it made its way up my arm? It makes about as much sense as that.

I never found the Sydney security officers overly concerned with my little square, which didn’t show up on any other scanner I’ve passed through. Most of the time they use the hand scanner, shake their head and politely let me through.

I feel for people with prosthetic knees and hips and other bits of metal in their bodies. Of course, the delay is nothing compared to the inconvenience of a terrorist attack, which is why we’re always willing to kick off our shoes and ditch our water bottles.

I think everyone understands that things would take a lot longer if passengers questioned every rule. But the vulnerability of travelers, especially women, to insensitive and sometimes outright sexual or sexist searches is something that is rarely highlighted, until Milligan files a complaint.

In 2020, when a baby was found abandoned at Doha airport, women on 10 flights from Qatar’s capital were terrified by armed guards in ambulances and subjected to an invasive gynecological examination to see if they were the mother of the newborn. Thirteen Australian women are suing the Qatari authorities for their distress.

Some security guards were later charged with assault, but the fact that it happened in the first place shows just how much power security personnel wield over travellers. They don’t even need weapons. If you complain for any reason, your transit out the door could be so much more miserable.

I found this very disturbing and a bit surprising. In Middle Eastern countries I am usually taken to a stall and searched behind curtains by a woman. It’s respectful, although I hate that I can’t watch my luggage when it happens.

In Australia, the Doha debacle is unlikely to occur. Our security services need a solid legal case for an intrusion. But Milligan’s experience shows how fine the line is between effective security and overzealous security. Now that much of international security is outsourced due to staff shortages at airports, it is possible to come across people less suited to the job, to put it mildly.

The best advice for getting through security is this: be organized, cooperative and keep your head down. In some places, don’t be a woman.

lee.tulloch@traveller.com.au

See also: I visited Saudi Arabia as a solo tourist. What I found was surprising

See also: Warning over guarding after Australian deported from US

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