Why airport security may have a women problem

For me, there are four stressful stages at the beginning of an overseas trip.

First off, getting to the airport on time, having remembered everything, including my passport.

Next, the anxiety induced by long check-in lines and the final relief of watching my luggage rattle down the conveyor belt (possibly to never be seen again, according to some recent experiences, but we live in hope.)

Then there's exiting at Immigration, which these days is relatively smooth if the electronic passport machines are working and enough of them are open.

The very last obstacle – and it does sometimes feel like a hurdles race that no one wants you to win – is security. It's my least favourite step, although I appreciate why we need it and believe that security personnel around the world mostly do a good job under pressure.

But it's imperfect, as journalist Louise Milligan found out a few weeks ago, when she was subjected to a search at Sydney airport that she found humiliating. Although the man going through the full body scanner ahead of her was allowed to keep his thick jumper on, Milligan was asked to take off her fitted jacket, even though she was wearing a skimpy camisole underneath.

Other passengers, mostly female, made similar complaints. Women were asked to take off slim-fitting shirts and jackets and endure pat-downs, while some men went through in coats. The security staff in Milligan's case were all men. There seemed to be a lack of sensitivity towards women's modesty, at the very least. Sydney airport later apologised.

The new full-body scanners are so powerful they pick up the underwire on women's bras as zips. Sometimes this means a full pat-down before you're allowed to collect your hand luggage and skive off to the gate.

I've disliked these scanners since they were introduced and try, often unsuccessfully, to choose the line that processes people through the old-fashioned ones. For some weird reason the machine at Sydney always highlights a little square under my right arm, which means I'm stopped every time. There is no explanation for what it is. Perhaps I swallowed a missing earring and it worked its way to my arm? It makes about as much sense as this.

Advertisement

I've never found the security people at Sydney to be over-concerned about my little square, which doesn't show up on any other scanners I've gone through. Mostly they run the hand scanner, shake their heads, and let me through politely.

I feel for people with knee and hip replacements and other bits of metal in their bodies. Of course, delay is nothing compared to the inconvenience of a terrorist attack, which is why we still accept taking off our shoes and ditching our water bottles.

I think everyone understands that things would take much longer if passengers questioned every rule. But the vulnerability of travellers, especially women, to insensitive and sometimes downright sexual or sexist searches is something that is rarely highlighted, until Milligan made her complaint.

In 2020, when a baby was found abandoned at Doha airport, women on 10 flights out of the Qatar capital were terrifyingly corralled into ambulances by guards with guns and subjected to an invasive gynaecological exam to see if they were the newborn's mother. Thirteen Australian women are suing Qatari authorities for their distress.

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

I found this very disturbing and a little surprising. In Middle Eastern countries I'm usually taken away to a booth and patted down behind curtains by a woman. It's respectful, even though I hate the fact I can't keep my eye on my luggage when this happens.

In Australia, the Doha debacle would have been unlikely to happen. Our security services need a strong legal case for an intrusion. But Milligan's experience shows what a fine line there is between efficient and overzealous security. Now that so much of security internationally is contracted out due to a shortage of airport staff, it's possible to run into individuals less suitable for this work, to put it mildly.

The best advice for getting through security remains this: be organised, co-operative 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 female tourist. What I found was surprising

See also: Warning over house-sitting after Australian deported from US