Sari Situation: Indian Ambassador Pat Down
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Next, we're going to talk about body image in a few minutes, specifically among Asian-Americans, where thin is really in, according to our commentator, who went to some extreme lengths to fit what she saw as the cultural ideal.
But first, we want to talk about the whole question of personal space. And I'd like you to imagine that you are an ambassador to the United States from a large and important country and that you are invited by the governor of one state to give a speech at a state university. And on the way you were singled out for one of those notorious patdowns by security officials, perhaps because of the traditional clothing you were wearing. How do you think you'd feel?
Well, that's exactly what happened to India's ambassador, Meera Shankar, at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi. Ambassador Shankar was wearing a sari. In fact, despite presenting diplomatic documents, it was the second time the ambassador was patted down by TSA workers in three months, according to the Indian foreign minister.
To tell us more, we're joined by Elizabeth Crisp of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. She broke this story. Also with us is Shikha Dalmia, a native of India, who wrote about this for Reason magazine - that's a libertarian publication. She's a senior analyst for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Thank you both so much for being with us.
Ms. ELIZABETH CRISP (Reporter, The Clarion-Ledger): Thanks for having me on.
Ms. SHIKHA DALMIA (Writer, Reason; Senior Analyst, Reason Foundation): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, can I just ask you, you broke the story for The Clarion-Ledger, so I wanted to ask how this issue emerged. And we know that the ambassador was a guest at Mississippi State University. How did that emerge, what had happened? Did she complain to someone? Did she mention this to somebody?
Ms. CRISP: It's kind of funny, the story, actually, it was told to me by a source that I have and it was more of a - this crazy thing happened, can you believe that they did this to her? And me, of course, I decided to look into it a bit more and talk to some of the people who were with her and who were escorting her. And that's how, I guess, the details of the story emerged.
MARTIN: Were state officials embarrassed by this?
Ms. CRISP: They wanted to kind of handle it maybe more diplomatically and not necessarily have the story out there because they were afraid it would be an embarrassment to Mississippi.
MARTIN: Well, the Indian government was quite furious about this. The foreign minister actually had a press conference to talk about this. They were quite outraged because their view is that she was singled out because of her sari. Elizabeth, before we turn to Shikha, do you have a sense of whether the ambassador herself was as outraged by this as the government is on her behalf?
Ms. CRISP: Those who were there said that they could definitely tell that she was embarrassed by the whole ordeal. But I don't think that there was ever a sense that she was the one who was outraged. Or as far as I know, I don't think she's commented on it to this day.
MARTIN: Shikha, do you think that the ambassador was singled out because of the sari, because it's unusual, perhaps in Mississippi. I don't know, Elizabeth, is a sari unusual? Do you see many of them?
Ms. CRISP: No. I would say it's rare to see someone in a sari.
MARTIN: OK. So Shikha, do you think that the ambassador was singled out because of the sari? And if so, what do you make of that?
Ms. DALMIA: You know, it's hard to say. But the evidence would suggest that. This was not the first time that she was patted down at an airport. It was the second time. You know, so that's certainly a possibility. And, you know, I can just imagine that in Mississippi, which is not a cosmopolitan state, you know, that this would appear to be a very, very strange garment. It's, you know, multilayered. It's this wraparound garment that's six yards. And to them it could have all kinds of sinister possibilities. And so it's quite possible that was the reason.
MARTIN: Now, Shikha, I'm going to ask you this question, that there was an interesting response to Elizabeth's article. On the one hand, people, you know, she was writing to describe to people why there was such an uproar about this. I mean, normally when people present diplomatic credentials, they are not subjected to these kinds of enhanced security measures. And that airport doesn't have those body scanners, which are often presented as an alternative to the patdown. On the other hand, there are many people who say, what's the problem here? She was treated like anybody else.
Ms. DALMIA: This incident to me encapsulates what's both, you know, good about America and what's not so good about America. What's good about America is, unlike, you know, India and many other countries, traditional societies, hierarchical societies, there are no special accommodations made for public officials here. Everybody is treated the same under the law.
Diplomats and other high up officials in India have a very different status and they expect that status to be respected. That isn't the case here. And so this sort of this equal treatment under the law is something to be commended about America.
On the other hand, what it also highlights is, you know, a certain parochial insular side of America. I mean, America is famously self-absorbed. And doesn't quite understand how other people understand themselves. And, you know, when they see a sari in Mississippi, they see something different. And what's different is immediately suspect.
MARTIN: You wrote a kind of an interesting kind of wry piece saying at the very least, you know, it's put the sari back on the map again. Not that the sari needs saving, but, you know, it's a 4,000-year-old garment, but it at least caused people to be newly aware of the beauty of the sari. But do you think it's offensive or do you think it's just part of - I mean, some might argue that it's not about insularity, it's about America's hyper awareness of security in the post 9/11 age.
Ms. DALMIA: Right. It is hard for Americans and Westerners in general to understand what a sari means to Indian women. You know, Americans and Western women have a very utilitarian attitude towards their clothing. You know, if they want to be professional, they'll wear a pant suit or, you know, if they want to look sexy, they'll wear a cocktail dress. That's not how Indian women who wear a sari approach the garment.
It's not a utilitarian object for them. You know, it defines to them both who they are and also defines to the world who this person is. So, when an Indian woman is singled out for wearing a sari, at a certain gut level, you know, you're not singling out the garment, you're kind of singling out who she is. And let me just also, you know, point out that the sari comes from the Indian subcontinent and this Indian subcontinent is also a subcontinent that has been dealing with terrorism for a long time, much before the United States did.
And, you know, there has never been a single terrorist incident involving a sari. But all that is sort of lost to airport officials over here. All they see is a very strange looking garment and they want to check it out.
MARTIN: Do you wear one?
Ms. DALMIA: I do wear one. But, you know, I've been in this country for 25 years, so my relationship with the sari has changed. I don't wear it on airports. I, you know, do wear it on special occasions.
MARTIN: You wear it for dress up.
Ms. DALMIA: Yes.
MARTIN: Special occasions.
So, Elizabeth, what do you think is the takeaway here? And I do want to mention that the State Department has issued formal regrets for the patdown of the ambassador and also the governor, Haley Barbour, has expressed his regret. I did find it interesting that he did make a point of saying these are federal TSA officials, and made it very clear that this had nothing to do with state people doing this.
So, what do you think? Is there any ongoing fallout from this? Was there being any discussion around sensitivity training? I don't know. Anything like that? Is there any ongoing result from this?
Ms. CRISP: I think that a lot of officials have said that they think that this may be a call for reviewing policies. Our congressman, Bennie Thompson, even before this incident, expressed concerns about patdowns. And whenever I spoke to him for this story, he seemed very interested in possibly, you know, reviewing these policies. I think Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also mentioned looking at if this is necessary.
MARTIN: And, Elizabeth, final thought from you, did you have any idea that this story would become as big as it is?
Ms. CRISP: It was definitely surprising. I knew that it would be something -the TSA patdowns had become an issue for a lot of people. So I knew it was definitely going to be something that people would discuss here. But obviously didn't expect for India's foreign minister to speak about it the next day.
MARTIN: So, Shikha, final thought from you. What do you make of the fact that so many people did not understand the problem? And is there something that you think should be learned from this experience?
Ms. DALMIA: You know, there are no quick fixes to this. I think with globalization, as America's exposure to the rest of the world increases, you know, over a period of time, this tolerance and understanding of different cultures and garments will increase. You know, so we just have to wait for this moment of enhanced enlightenment.
There are no shortcuts to it. There is no immediate lesson to be learned, I suppose, except that perhaps, you know, the government officials can do a little bit more to train TSA officials and functionaries on how to deal with people who look different. But beyond that, you know, there is not much to be taken away from this.
Ms. DALMIA: And, Michel, actually, can I add one more thing?
MARTIN: Yeah. Go ahead.
Ms. DALMIA: One of the things that's upset Indians is that, actually, both Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano, they expressed regret for the episode, but they actually did not apologize for it. And one of the reasons was that the aides to the ambassador did not ahead of time send the ambassador's credentials to airport officials, which is kind of what's required procedure. So the airport officials were kind of unaware. They didn't sort of get this pre-clearance for her, and that was one of the reasons why she was singled out. So there is, I think, you know, some blame to go around everywhere in this episode.
MARTIN: That was Shikha Dalmia. She's a senior analyst for the Reason Foundation. She joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Also with us, Elizabeth Crisp. She's a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, and she joined us from Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.