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“It’s just a can of soda! What’s the big deal?”

Published Jun 05, 2015 02:50pm


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It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident of discrimination against Tahera Ahmed in isolation. —Screengrab
It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident of discrimination against Tahera Ahmed in isolation. —Screengrab

When a woman is denied a can of diet coke aboard a United Airlines flight for being a Muslim, we know we’re facing no ordinary news item; we have a veritable litmus test sifting out the raging anti-Muslim bigots from the general population.

Tahera Ahmed, a chaplain at the Northwestern University, asked a flight attendant for an unopened can of diet coke, but was refused service on an excuse that one “may use it as a weapon on the plane”.

Yet, the person next to Tahera was served an unopened can of beer. When she complained, a fellow passenger yelled obscenities at her and accused her of wanting to use the can as a weapon.

While this story of overt discrimination resonates with victims of Islamophobia around the world, it has made Tahera the target of red-hot, hate speech on social media.

It is evident that to an Islamophobe, the only thing less desirable than a Muslim, is a Muslim who refuses to take his or her ‘well-deserved’ social punishment lying down.

Also read: Chinese city bans large beards, wearing hijab

Predictably, the following charges are being levied, and arguments being employed, against Tahera Ahmed in the wake of her resistance:

“She’s lying!”

The first charge is not based on careful examination of the story, but a firm belief that anti-Muslim bigotry is a myth invented by Islamists to garner undeserved sympathy.

One is, therefore, expected to react the same way I react to a person claiming to have spotted a leprechaun in his office cubicle.

“She has ties with radical Islamists”

As it dawns on one that discrimination may indeed have occurred, one proceeds to malign the victim, making it appear that she deserved the humiliation.

Up pops on the Internet, a photograph of Tahera Ahmed standing next to a man who works for an organisation that is run by a parent organisation that happens to run the mosque once attended by the Boston Bomber.

How do you say “busted” in Arabic?

Assuming that is damning evidence of Tahera’s direct association with terrorists, let’s not lose sight of the fact that she wasn’t discriminated against for her exposed link to extremists (she would not have been on a flight otherwise), but simply for her religious identity. How does that make the incident on-board any less condemnable?

“Why did she need an unopened can of diet coke?”

Have you ever been to a diner and had the narrow-eyed waiter interrogate you on why you “need” to have eggs for breakfast. Why not porridge instead? Why not waffles? What devious egg-based plot are you hatching, for which you so specifically order a plate of eggs sunny-side-up?

You may think that you are under no obligation to explain your dietary preferences to your food server. You have a right to order eggs from the menu; the reason being nobody’s business.

But, if you’re a Muslim woman in a hijab aboard a plane, you ostensibly have to issue a formal statement on why you want a can of diet coke, while the non-Muslim passenger next to you insouciantly pops open a can of beer.

Also read: Choosing between religion and justice in a Canadian court

Shuttle America confirmed that it has no specific policy concerning opened or unopened cans aboard an aircraft. This is probably wise, as we wouldn’t want our insecurity regarding soda cans branching out into a discussion on the use of plastic spoons at 30,000 feet up in the sky, with the potential of gouging someone’s eye out.

“It’s just a can of soda! What’s the big deal?”

It would be a grievous mistake to view this incident in isolation as the sum total of the inconvenience a member of a religious minority might face.

It must be understood as a single dot in a vast constellation of injustices, that add up to form a horrifying rash across the face of our sociopolitical order.

Also read: Islamophobia biggest hurdle in fight against terrorism: Nisar

So what if black people aren’t allowed to have cheese-flavoured Pringles?

Or if Native Americans are told not to wear red sneakers?

Doesn’t bigotry cease to be so, if it’s minor enough to elude national media coverage?

Every inch of freedom that we forfeit widens the chasm between the privileged and the marginalised. And we have good reason to believe that the gap is wide enough as it is.


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Faraz Talat is a doctor from Rawalpindi who writes mostly about science and prevalent social issues.

He tweets @FarazTalat

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (76) Closed

rehan Jun 05, 2015 03:02pm

Brave woman. Salute to her for standing up to the discriminating behavior !!!!!

Ammar Gill BWP Jun 05, 2015 03:03pm

This world has been victim of racism and bigot-ism right from beginning and the main reason behind is human nature of stereotyping and by nature we humans are discriminators and delusional and we all human race should be ashamed of our state of mind.

khalid Jun 05, 2015 03:06pm

The lady Tahera is going to become as famous as the little Pakistani girl Mallala. Tahera is featured in so many newspapers with each image more attractive than the last one.

AHA Jun 05, 2015 03:10pm

A majority of Americans are arrogant, ignorant and many are outright stupid. Best wishes for Tahera Ahmed.

gopal Jun 05, 2015 03:36pm

@AHA And still many people from your country will give up one of their limbs to emigrate to America.

Gill Jun 05, 2015 03:42pm

The air hostess could have opened the Can infront of her. Whats the big deal !!

But if there were some other Passengers chanting , that is completely wrong

Afzal Jun 05, 2015 03:44pm

Muslims in US only have themselves to blame for the stereotypes that exist regarding them!!!!!!!!!!!!

ehsan Jun 05, 2015 03:48pm

Ahh America the land of freedom and tolerance. Yeah right.

Saad S. Jun 05, 2015 04:31pm

World is behaving like more extremist than Muslims and then they blame why Mulsims are like this?think Palestine, Kashmir, Rohingyas... where are so called human organizations who stand up and start cry if person belonging to any other religion get killed or humiliated??minds of these ppl are extremist. real reason behind

N.A Jun 05, 2015 04:34pm

I have traveled in United Airlines on a very long flight, if i am not wrong they, and all other airlines i traveled in, serve drinks in disposable glass.

M. Malik Jun 05, 2015 05:16pm

@N.A Not quite...lately all major carriers in the U.S. have been cutting costs, and more often you are handed a small can of soda or beer, than pored into any cup. You are also more likely to be handed a small plastic bottle of water, than given a glass of water to drink.

ijaz Jun 05, 2015 05:16pm

@ gopal: Trust me pal, it's not as bad as in India. Given that people are suffering from negative environmental conditions such as the aftermath of terror & hate emanating from outside, still vast majority of our people are resilient and would prefer to fight it out here than visit your countrymen's new found land of opportunity... or I should say, 'New Master'.

Keti Zilgish Jun 05, 2015 05:19pm

Looks like some body is out to profit by increasing the price of variety.

Sadiq Jun 05, 2015 05:23pm

I travel lot on these airlines, the people are quite arrogant. You have to be careful.

Mirza Jun 05, 2015 05:32pm

With such incidents US universities (like Northwestern) will lose the edge further. Together with strict immigration policies such incidents make decision difficult for talented students who have been the fuel for the gigantic US growth engine!

Truth Jun 05, 2015 05:33pm

The United airlines announced that the air hostess who served open can of diet coke to Tahera Ahmad is no longer with the airline. She's fired by the company.

Ahmed Jun 05, 2015 05:51pm

So far, we only have her side of the story. I have lived in a number of non-Muslim countries and the type of hate and discrimination she described definitely exists, but is usually limited to a very small percentage of people in one-to-one encounters. In the States especially, ordinary people will stand up against the type of public discrimination she describes.

What is more likely? That three racist individuals (the hostess, the person next to her and the other passenger) happened to be exactly where she was and did what they did without anyone standing up for her or that there may be more to it? Somehow, she comes across as one of those troublesome customers who create a fuss over trivial things and blow things out of proportion. I may be wrong, but I guess we will never know for sure.

Imran Jun 05, 2015 05:57pm

911 is now almost 15 years behind us but religious bigotry in US is ever increasing ever since especially in the south. I have lived in Chicago and New York but never faced a single word about my religion but I know it is there and many people have faced this. My only issue with Muslims is that we need to evolve with time. Half of Muslims have very conservative views and that even makes me cringe at times. We all need to come together to condemn these bigots and discrimination towards anyone does not matter what faith ot group or gender they are from with one voice. Let humanity prevail before personal choices.

Samad Jun 05, 2015 06:19pm

@AHA {A majority of Americans are arrogant, ignorant and many are outright stupid. Best wishes for Tahera Ahmed.} On the contrary, majority of Pakistani's are humble and wise. Do you guys have mirrors in Pakistan? Try looking in it for a change.

This is America:

Mirza Jun 05, 2015 06:29pm

@Ahmed dear such behavior in the US is unexpected, although these days african americans, latinos also feeling pressure. Generally coke in plastic glass is normal for all airlines, but for some reason, may be because her neighbor asked and she being an activist decided to test her theory and ask as well, the "hidden/unexpected" feelings came out, airlines clarified that no such policy!

probono publico Jun 05, 2015 06:37pm

We salute you Maa'm, for standing firm on your grounds and fighting for your rights. Bravo you!

lafanga Jun 05, 2015 06:47pm

I will not doubt her story any more than I will doubt United Airlines apology. UA is a big company. They won't apologise to anyone unless they have investigated the incident and are reasonably sure that the incident, as described by Ms. Ahmed, took place.

I will however say that it's odd she started uploading her description of the incident on FB while still flying and immediately after it took place. I would have waited until the plane landed then complain to the ground staff and take it up the chain from there. This would have given her story a lot more credibility. But in any case, hope she gets compensated for this by UA.

Ryan Jun 05, 2015 07:09pm

Not a good time to be a Muslim. Muslims in the west are in siege, muslims in the east (China, Thailand, Phillipines) are in siege, Muslims in South Asia are in siege and Muslims in their land are in siege. Hopefully things will get better

hanifsmile Jun 05, 2015 07:45pm

I live in USA and I can tell you I am seeing lot of hate for Muslims, it's not out of control but it is growing.

Ali Jun 05, 2015 08:30pm

@Gill The air hostess offered to do this, the lady in question refused.

AB Uzair Jun 05, 2015 08:35pm

Well, just a few decades ago, blacks could not ride in the same 'bus' as 'real Americans'. For quite some time Jews (and in some places Catholics) were not allowed to enroll in public schools (with other 'real Americans') in many cities. Eventually they all became 'real Americans'. It took some struggle and now and then you do see some isolated hate against them but by and large they are classified as 'real Americans'. Muslims are in the same boat. They have started seeing this only in the last few years. It will take atleast a generation before things improve and they would be classified as 'real Americans' too.

Faceless Jun 05, 2015 09:54pm

I've been living in the US for last thirty years and I can assure you these types of hate incidents are extremely rare. In my personal view, I find the US to be one of the most tolerant nations in the world. No disrespect to the victim of this incident but she also KNOWS these type of incidents are not common in America. America does not discriminate you because of your religion, race, caste, or skin color! We have a black President whose father was a Muslim. Go Figure!!!

Ali Jun 05, 2015 10:06pm

@gopal Same goes for people of your country

Raza Jun 05, 2015 10:10pm

@gopal SAme goes for India Gopal. I am an American of Pakistani origin and see 4 time more Indians immigrating to US than Pakistanis. The issue we have in US is that 30% if Indians produce fake degrees and are sent back home. We are planning on implementing better controls to check and eliminate non deserving.

Zeeshan Ahmed Jun 05, 2015 10:12pm

Very well articulated piece, spot on.

Raza Jun 05, 2015 10:12pm

@AHA Thats not correct, if you look at hate crimes you would see more perpetuated in India and then in Pakistan. Dont judge an entire nation with an act of few. Muslims are denied jobs in India, thrown out of colleges but Indian GOVT fails to address their concerns. Here in US their is an uproar and she will get her due justice. The flight attendant has been sacked.

Asad Jun 05, 2015 10:18pm

Why no one writes on the US supreme court recent verdict to wear Hijab and right to religious practice in Samantha Elouf case? Stop portraying US in a negative way. This land is the most tolerant land on surface of earth. Trust me I am witnessing it first hand.

Moody Yeller Jun 05, 2015 10:18pm

@Mirza How does Northwestern figure here? The incident happened on an airlne based out of O'Hare, not Northwestern University. While blogs based on one-off incidents like these get the blood boiling of come people, they serve little purpose.

Moody Yeller Jun 05, 2015 10:22pm

@Truth Cause and effect. Did I read correct today that eight of the ten convicted in Malala's case were secretly acquitted? Isn't that a far more outrageous case of hatred and Islamophobia?

muhibbewatan Jun 05, 2015 10:25pm

@lafanga It appears that you hit right chord when you commented about 'compensation' by United Airlines. The apology only serves as an eye-wash, so, don't be impressed by it. The underlying reason for that is: "JUST LEAVE US ALONE (in other words: DO NOT SUE US!), which is always the case with high-profile organisations in U.S. due to the anti-discriminatory laws and provisions in the Constitution.

Mustafa Jun 05, 2015 10:28pm


Oldest trick in protocols of bigotry, blame the victim. Just like black men breaking their own backs in the ambulances.

Mustafa Jun 05, 2015 10:41pm

Je Suis Tahera.

mustafa Jun 05, 2015 10:47pm

@N.A yes you are right, I always get drink in a disposable glass.

Z Jun 05, 2015 10:56pm

@Truth "She's fired by the company" What about the chanting passengers? Point of the article is not that one hostess, rather the islamophobia.

Kamal Jun 05, 2015 10:59pm

Small thing. This is called making mountain out of a molehill.

KN Jun 06, 2015 12:19am

Its not fair to punish her twice for being a Muslim woman.

Qureshi Jun 06, 2015 01:04am

She has option to travel with other airline. Whats a big deal.

Saeed Masood Jun 06, 2015 01:13am

America used to be a wonderful place to live...there are hidden hands destroying this wonderful country.

gary Jun 06, 2015 01:13am

@hanifsmile And it is not going to decrease any time soon.

goodDeedsLeadTo Jun 06, 2015 01:23am

I have been traveling back & forth on Southwest between Newark & Midway over the last few weeks. I did not come across any discrimination. Best thing is to communicate & be open with the services (ATS & Home Land Security). As an example, once it happened. I have a laptop do you want me to put it in the box, and they advised me to not open the bag. They run the explosive check on everyone regardless of the color of the skin, it includes spraying on your hand or inside bag. They open check in bagages to check and put a tag as a courtesy that security services opened your bag in your absence. This activity does not happen because you are Muslim. I think best thing is not give a chance for them, because, it is their job to ensure our safety. I never notices any paranoia. We should understand it if they are not taking any chances, it is for our own good. it is not personal. that is what we should understand.

goodDeedsLeadTo Jun 06, 2015 01:26am

I live in US too, but I don't see hatred. It is not common, at least. We have thousands of physicians who work in almost every American hospitals, and that is a proof, hatred against Muslims is not common. Freaks exists everywhere, among those who claim to be Muslims or non Muslims.

zeezoo Jun 06, 2015 01:35am

@gopal is it different for indians?havent you seen american border control single out indians for the same reason...i remember your president ,your ambassador,embassy staff and your biggest bollywood hero,are a few example that have faced the same treatment just because of their names,color ,height and get up etc. but still since it is something not for an indian and an outside muslim ,you ought to demean it. next time when your embassy staff is frisk searched , i want the same comment on DAWN.

Amir Khan SF Wala Jun 06, 2015 02:20am

@Ryan Have you thought about it without any prejudice as to why we Muslims are hated so much around the world?

indus Jun 06, 2015 02:35am

It is so nice to hear that there is no discrimination in Pakistan as it is exits in rest of the world.

Malik Jun 06, 2015 02:52am

@hanifsmile I live in USA too, and most of our Muslims go out of their ways to invite trouble. There is some duplicity in their actions always. Women wear hijab always when they see a journalist visiting their mosque. Long time ago, when I worked in large office, the Muslims wanted a space for prayer which was readily provided. However, they always create mess in the bathrooms, water spilled all over, all the napkins used, and a crowd is always there.Where else but in USA public library halls can be used for Friday prayers, and yes they would provide security as well.

mike Jun 06, 2015 02:56am

The biggest problem for outsiders (read non-Muslims) is that how can they distinguish between the normal, liberal and open minded religious people and fundamentalists. Good people do not take the stand and have enough courage to say that their religion doesn't teach violence to those religious fanatics. Western countries are still far more liberal and open minded than some of the Muslim countries. Isn't that true?

mike Jun 06, 2015 02:57am

@AHA That is very bold statement bro.

PThind Jun 06, 2015 03:05am

@Afzal ...Muslims should reflect on the fact that there was no discrimination and were welcome in the US more than other communities...then why this change in attitude???

mike Jun 06, 2015 03:35am

@ehsan Yes it is .

mike Jun 06, 2015 03:58am

@Mirza There is a talent in is it going to matter if students from one country stop coming to US ? I don't think so. Why would you drag university into this? It is a problem between a passenger and air line. If your image is bad in your society, do you think you will have the same privilege as some reputed man will have? Obviously answer is No. This is what happens at world stage too. Improve the image and people will start respecting you.

Sarwar, USA Jun 06, 2015 04:30am

West is full of racism... every day blacks are killed by whites even by white police. Where Asians live white move out... West helps terrorists to gain motives then turn against them ... the list goes on and on...All oppressed should come out against the imperialists.

Shair Khan Jun 06, 2015 05:30am

Brave women!!!!

swamy Jun 06, 2015 06:27am

@ijaz @gopal, fact of the matter is one of the biggest illegal immigrants are from subcontinent. It is also a fact that western countries offer better opportunities and more fair than here. This is not to take away the seriousness of this demeanor, which should be condemned. Just a thought.. would anyone reacts if this incident happened in any other part of the world, say middle east or even subcontinent!

SMD Jun 06, 2015 08:27am

@indus If something is wrong in Pakistan should it become a reason or justification for same in US. Pakistan suffers because of those who were ally of US a few years back when there was a war in our backyard, we were so fool we thought US had some love for our mujahideen, in fact it wanted some mercenaries for its proxy war. Now when the war is over suddenly these bearded fellows who were once invited to White House as Friends became terrorists. So nothing to be ashamed of in few years US will find another enemy in South probably Venezuela or somewhere and we can then rest in peace collecting our own pieces.

SKZ Jun 06, 2015 08:31am

We cannot argue with these people who are islamphobic . All we need to do is all muslims boycott this particular airline and within few days you will hear an apology from the same people. Let that opened can and their attitude costs them few thousands of dollar. Hit them where it hurts the most..

Roy Jun 06, 2015 08:34am

i wonder how could a can, say, be used as a weapon against so many passengers in an aeroplane..?!!

jigar k pas Jun 06, 2015 08:41am

She wanted to take a free soda home without opening the can. The guy who had a beer paid $7.00 for it. He could take it home because he paid.

Asif Raza Jun 06, 2015 08:51am

@Ahmed - We will know for sure. Her photo has been published in newspapers/TV channels/ social media. Next time she travels on any airline in US or pops into a restaurant she will be recognized. Will any fight attendant/waitress be willing to serve her ?

Mohammad Adam Khan Jun 06, 2015 08:57am

Wearing hajaab means avoid conflict, if hijaab is getting reason of conflict, then it would be wise to not wear hijaab in those circumstances. Islam teaches tolerance, not tease or irritate people by their acts. I personally believe, women should stop wearing hijaab in USA, EUROPE OR where ever, there is chance of conflict.

Javed Jun 06, 2015 09:00am

on another note, major problem is that it has 36 teaspoons of bleached sugar (ordinary white sugar) to make it taste sweet. It is this bleach (apart from other chemicals in this one can) that harms human organs inside his/her belly including but limited to damage to kidneys, and rest of the system. Just try dipping your finger and see how it feels. Now imagine drinking the same bleach. How does it sound?

KD Jun 06, 2015 09:06am

@Saad S. And what about Ahmadyias, Hazaras, Ismailis, Shias, and Christians? Where is the rage?

xPakisyani Jun 06, 2015 09:53am

@AHA - coming from a bagger - calling his master ignorant, arrogant and stupid - is height of stupidity. So American are ignorant and stupid - but you as Pakistani being humble, intelligent, smart has nothing to show for. You exist because these stupid people are supporting retarded nation. Without charity and left over from American you can not survive a day.

Allaisa Jun 06, 2015 10:18am

So far no one corroborated her version. But here is another version. She asked for a Coke zero and the Flight Attendant gave her full can of diet coke and a plastic glass which she refused. Then the FA brought her an open can of coke zero (not many cans on the plane) and a glass. This is when the whole thing started.

I too have been served drinks from an open can and I am a catholic.

Muddassir Nazar Jun 06, 2015 10:49am

Hats off to your courage sister.....You are the pride of Muslims.....

Arian Jun 06, 2015 11:59am

She can sue the airlines and the passenger for libellous statement that is unproven. She must sue them for millions of dollars to avoid any future mishap.

Allaisa Jun 06, 2015 12:02pm

@SKZ You are wrong. If Muslims boycott there will many others who will support this airline and its business will go up. As one of our Presidents famously said 'Go ahead, make my day!'

Tamza Jun 06, 2015 12:03pm

@muhibbewatan for those who are interested, read up on the case of one Ellen Pao in san francisco.

ainuddin khilji Jun 06, 2015 12:04pm

its the power of western media. how they changed the perception of people against muslims

Tamza Jun 06, 2015 12:10pm

@Sarwar, USA Sorry - racism is just one form of bigotry. Your name suggests Pakistan origin; did you ever look down on a 'bhangi'? How did you treat the 'servants'? The 'lower classes' are treated aas sub-human by those in power/ wealth/authority. So lets not be jumping on the US being bigoted - YES it is, but it is probably still the LEAST in the world, certainly less than Pakistan.

M. Malik Jun 06, 2015 01:07pm

@Allaisa hmmmmm....what's you source of information??? This much detail was not even reported in any media!!!

M. Malik Jun 06, 2015 01:56pm

@Kamal it Rosa Parks had given up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama in the 60s, there may not have been a civil rights movement in the U.S. And a black family had not moved into the 'White House' (pun intended) in the 21st century!!