‘Saffa’ shares her experience of being stopped at a UK airport with her 3 year old son, separated from her husband and interrogated by Police Officers under Schedule 7 powers. Her story is part of our campaign #HandsOffOurHijabs.
I was flying from Heathrow to Algeria. I was with my three-year-old son, my husband at the time, and his five-year-old daughter.
I was stopped while trying to board the plane. Three males and one female said to me you’re not getting on this flight today. And I thought, okay. I said: “What do you mean?”
They handed me the Schedule 7 form, and said I had to come with them, and I had to separate from my husband, and his daughter. I had to take my son with me. He was very confused.
They walked me through the airport. I can’t describe how humiliating that was. They walked us through everybody, marching us in front of all these people. I am tiny, 5 ft 4 and there I was with three 6-foot men and a large woman, walking me through the airport.
We walked to a small room tucked away from the airport. It was just a blank room with a table and chairs.
When we got there, I started having a panic attack. I said I had to go to the bathroom. My son was unwell, and he kept asking for my husband.
I was escorted to the toilet by a female officer. My son had to come with me everywhere. Even when they walked me through the airport to take my fingerprints and ID, my son had to see me having my fingerprints taken. A three year old.
He was very distressed by the time we got to the room.
They stopped me because I was wearing niqab and in black
I have no idea why they stopped me. I’ve never done anything.
They handed me this Schedule 7 leaflet, and from that point onwards, I was in shock. I kept thinking, they think I’m a terrorist, and they’ve come to take my son.
I was fully covered, in niqab. I dress in full black. I think they stopped me because of that. It’s one of the things I raised with them. I said: “All the time, I’ve been travelling without niqab and now when I do, you stop me.”
First they explained about Schedule 7, and they asked me to read their protocol, and they got me to sign this yellow form. The guy questioning me was really calm and he said, “It’s best if you’re open and honest with us”.
They said: “We need to ask you some questions and check that you aren’t involved in anything.” They asked for devices, and then looked in my luggage.
They asked me if I prayed five times a day. They asked what mosques I pray in, if there were any whisperings in the mosques, if I had heard hate preaching.
I said: “What on earth do you think goes on in mosques?”
It seemed to me they were trying to find information on the community.
They asked me if I knew anyone who’d been in trouble. I said I knew some people who had husbands who had been arrested for things, but that had nothing to do with me, and I didn’t know specifics.
They asked me how many children I had, if they had their father’s names. I thought: “What’s that got to with terrorism?”
They didn’t go into politics or anything, maybe because I said I don’t watch TV so I don’t listen to politics. I’m in my own bubble, really.
They asked if I followed any groups and how I felt about the stabbings that had taken place. I explained that this is not what practising Muslims believe in. Then I went into dawah mode, explaining the differences between the Christians and Muslims, you know, I went on about that for a bit.
I was co-operating and laughing with them and giving them dawah.
They asked a lot of personal questions, relating to relations with my family. They asked how my family had receivedme becoming a Muslim.
They got my son a colouring book. He was colouring, then he fell asleep. He wasn’t well, he was quite upset because, imagine, he was with me and his family, and suddenly he’s been taken away from them. He was constantly asking about them.
I missed my flight and got no compensation or help getting home
They questioned me for five hours. In the end, they said they’d tried to get another flight.
They also didn’t pay for me to go back home. So, at my own expense, I was stopped in the airport.
I never got angry. I was more anxious and nervous. One officer made me feel very relaxed and I told them what they wanted to know. But I was irritated that I’d lost so much money.
They didn’t seem to be sorry. The Officer just mumbled, ‘sorry, there’s nothing we can do’. I couldn’t even get home. They said, I should just phone family for help!
But really, they should have financially compensated me.
The worst part was that I had my son with me as they marched us through the airport. It was so demoralising, like I am some criminal, when I have done nothing wrong.
I mean, why don’t they have everything in a nearby room? Why do they have to parade you through the whole airport?
Imagine my son was 13, and not 3, and imagine how he would have been affected by that.
Also, they asked me to remove my niqab (face veil) in the room, as they wanted to take a picture. Although they didn’t ask me to remove my hijab, I have heard they have done that to some sisters.
I don’t know how I would have felt if they’d asked me to remove my hijab. I don’t have any words for that.
I would have felt my dignity and honour and being stripped away from me. I’d feel like I’d want to die, literally. I don’t think there are any other words to describe it.
I booked a flight two days later. I went without niqab and got on the plane, no issues.
After the Schedule 7 stop the Police came to my home
Two months later after that stop, SO15 came to my house. They knocked on my door. I opened the door, thinking something was happening on the road, and I let them in.
They said they were here to talk about the “incident” that happened in the airport. I was in complete shock. I thought, you’re now coming to my house, while my son is still running around, and you are asking the same questions as you did at the airport?!
They wanted to know the email addresses of some people I know and what my connection with them is. They were asking me questions I’d already answered. I gave them my email address and my work address.
They said they were concerned I work with children, and there are people “radicalising” them.
I said, “Wait a minute, you think I am going to introduce terrorism to children?”
They asked what I taught and when. They remained for about an hour and a half.
They asked about my family, and about the mosque. They said if I talk about Islam, I should just keep it in the family. Essentially, If you talk about the deen, if you give da’wah, it means you’re extreme.
I said, this is the second time you’ve come to me. I said, “You need to tell me who in particular you are interested in, and I will cut contact with that person.”
They said they couldn’t tell me. So I said: “You can’t tell me about his person, but you want to ask me 1000 questions besides the single specific thing that is causing the most trouble?”
I have had to go for trauma counselling
About two weeks after the home visit, they called me again. They asked me to come to the police station, because “people” wanted to speak to me.
I felt they wanted me to work with them. I’m in the community a lot. I know a lot of people. I am a good source to tap into, if they want to know what’s going on in a lot of areas.
They made it out like they wanted to help me. They said, we felt you were really scared, and that there was something you wanted to say, but you couldn’t… I said: “What?!”
They said:“It’s voluntary, we can’t say who these people are or what department they are from, but they want to speak to you, and they are trying to help.”
So, I got solicitors involved. My solicitors dealt with it and from there it was like: “Oh, we don’t need to speak to her anymore. We aren’t concerned anymore.”
But the impact on my life, on my mind, has been huge. I’ve had to go for counselling. They really, really disturbed my life. I thought I was going to have a breakdown, I won’t lie.
On top of that, I was isolating myself. My mind kept going back, thinking: who have a I spoken to? I was going through my entirelife as a Muslim, thinking, what happened, what went wrong?
They made me want to close my doors and not walk out of my house. They made me feel that I can’t be who I am, as I might be a terrorist.
I didn’t want to speak about Islam. They made me feel like I couldn’t trust anyone.
The long-term impact of this is bad, but we rely on Allah alone
My son knows who the police are for sure now. He’s still too young. If he was older, it would have affected him more.
You see, we are always talking to people, and sitting down having conversations in my house with different people. So, I tried to treat it like a normal thing so he wouldn’t think it unusual.
I don’t think the government is doing well on counter terrorism at all. They are discriminating and they are very Islamophobic. In fact, they are terrorising people, and they make people’s lives a living hell.
If I didn’t have CAGE, I think I would be going crazy to be honest. I wouldn’t know what to do. If you go through this on your own, you will go crazy as they will just keep coming to you and harassing you.
They are targeting the Muslims. They have no reason to stop you; it’s always just a hunch. It’s a very sad state of affairs. You think that a legal system in the West wouldn’t be so unjust.
They made me feel like I’d done something, when I’ve never done anything.
I don’t know if they can build the bridges that are required at this stage. They’ve shown time and again, they don’t really care.
It’s like they don’t want you to be a Muslim, and the suggestion is that you shouldn’t be a Muslim and talk about Islam at all, because this will just bring trouble.
There is nothing else that can help you in this than Allah. This is the beauty of Islam. There’s nothing else.
If I hadn’t experienced this, I wouldn’t have felt this deep connection with Allah. For a lot of things in life, you can speak to someone, pull a few strings. But when it comes to this type of thing, there’s nothing else you can do but call on Him.
This isn’t the best thing to go through, but the way you feel in your connection to Allah after such a thing, is very deep and very strong.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)