Security checkpoints can form part of our daily lives and routines. We encounter them at the beginning, during, and at the end of our travels. We encounter them when entering a public building, such as a museum, an embassy, or perhaps, a school. We might even encounter unfixed checkpoints on the road. In whichever case, after being confronted with one, most of us feel, well, let’s say, uncomfortable.
Security checkpoints are a site of dehumanisation. Within these settings, we are publicly stripped, touched, and policed. We are scanned, questioned, and at times humiliated, some of us experiencing this to a worse degree than others. For example, people with disabilities and medical conditions might experience anxiety and the potential of harm when encountering a checkpoint. A person might have an implanted medical device that cannot be removed, or they could carry essential medication or tools that run the risk of being manhandled and even wrecked. Enduring a physical pat-down can be particularly distressing as the officer in question, and even the public, discover and react to certain bodily differences.
Gender, of course, plays a great role in these spaces. People who do not conform to the gender norm, face a harmful invasion of their intimacy and a heightening of body dysmorphia (distress over their appearance) when encountering security checkpoints. Millimetre wave scanners, a device often used in airports for detecting objects concealed underneath a person’s clothing, regularly trigger false alarms about transgender bodies. So, people that are transgender are frequently subjected to pat-downs of their genitals, the exposure of their bodies, the questioning of their identification documents, and misgendering.
These dynamics are further amplified by race. Perceived race, religion, and ethnicity make certain people more vulnerable to invasive screening. People who wear a religious head covering or loose-fitting garments face invasive pat-downs and are often asked to remove certain clothing items as they are suspected of hiding objects underneath them. This suspicion can also be said to be informed by racist assumptions that associate terrorism with Islam.
It is important to remember that security checkpoints are military policing practices, which may be said to aim to obstruct the enemy from entering and causing harm in the space that is being protected. So, in a way, these practices put us in the place of the enemy, of the unwanted, it shows that they, whoever they might be, believe to be at war against us.
Security checkpoints are, of course, predominantly found in conflict-ridden areas, in which the monitoring and control of movement and materials is of particular sensitivity. Such barriers have been found in the past in countries such as Germany or Ireland, and today, are found in many locations around the world, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, French Guiana, and more. Here, I would like to discuss one of the most notorious regions in which security checkpoints are overly present, one, in which gender dynamics greatly inform these checkpoints, namely Palestine.
Freedom of movement, amongst other freedoms, is seriously curtailed in Palestinian territories. Only in the West Bank region, 175 Israeli permanent checkpoints and 304 roadblocks, as well as other temporary barriers, utilise repressive surveillance systems to control the whereabouts of the Palestinian population. Thousands of Palestinians cross multiple security checkpoints daily, squeezing into overcrowded claustrophobic lanes on their way to work, school, and hospitals, to see their families and friends, to attend a mosque, and of course, on their way back home. In these checkpoints, Palestinians face extensive periods of waiting, abusive interrogation, constant threats of violence, and the arbitrary detention or negation of their right of passage. In addition, due to the severe overcrowding of these sites, in some cases, people have been crushed to death.
Security checkpoints in Palestinian territories affect women, and their bodies in a particularly poignant way. In the first instance, it is more difficult for women to obtain permits to cross the checkpoints. Women who do not work on the other side of the security border can only obtain permits for medical reasons or in some cases, to attend the mosque. Therefore, their freedom of movement is even more restricted than that of men. Within the checkpoints, they face abuse both from Israeli officers and occasionally Palestinian men also crossing the same checkpoint, who shame them for taking their place in the queue. Women’s bodily privacy is completely overlooked, sexualised, and humiliating practices are applied. Further, Palestinian women who are pregnant are often forced to give birth on site, experience miscarriages, and even death, if Israeli soldiers deny their right of passage on their way to a hospital.
Passing a security checkpoint is never a pleasant experience. However, depending on your societal position and physicality, this experience can be significantly worsened. Certain people are already suspected and made into an enemy in their own homes, forced to continuously prove their innocence amongst oppressive practices. Perhaps we should all take this into consideration the next time we come across a checkpoint.