Controversy shrouds Muslim women’s head coverings

College sophomore Hani Khan had worked for three months as a stockroom clerk at a Hollister Co. clothing store in San Francisco when she was told the head scarf she wears in observance of Islam violated the company’s “look policy.”

The policy instructs employees on clothing, hairstyles, makeup and accessories they may wear to work. When supervisors told Khan she had to remove the scarf, known as a hijab, to work at the store, she refused on religious grounds. A week later, she says, she was fired.

In February, Khan filed a federal job discrimination complaint against Hollister and its parent company, Abercrombie & Fitch. She is among a growing number of Muslim women filing complaints of discrimination at work, in businesses or in airports.

Nadia Hassan says she was singled out for extra scrutiny at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Nadia Hassan says she was singled out for extra scrutiny at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. By Jay Westcott for USA TODAY

In 2009, 425 Muslim women filed workplace discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Spokesman David Grinberg says the commission does not track filings by religious garb. The EEOC investigates complaints and dismisses or resolves them through mediation or lawsuits.

Iska Hain, an Abercrombie & Fitch spokeswoman, declined to comment on Khan’s case but said in an e-mail that the company is “committed to ensuring a diverse and inclusive work environment.”

Khan, 19, says she was surprised by the store’s action. “I live in the Bay Area, where everyone is so open-minded. For that to happen here was astonishing.”

The attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day has made discrimination against Muslim women worse, says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy organization. He says women wearing hijabs are the visible face of Islam.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Muslim from Nigeria, is charged with trying to detonate explosives to bring down the plane over Detroit.

Complaints on the rise

In the first three months of the year, CAIR received 43 discrimination complaints from women who wear hijabs, compared with 103 in all of 2009.

Some of the complaints allege workplace bias. Others are from women who say they were singled out for additional security screening in airports, were stopped from entering banks because of security policies that prohibit hoods, hats and sunglasses, or were told to remove their hijabs before taking a driver’s license photo.

The Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles apologized last week after a clerk told a 16-year-old girl she had to remove her scarf to be photographed for her driver’s license. After an argument, another clerk stepped in to say that was incorrect, but the girl was so upset that the photo shows her crying.

“Most people understand the need for safety, including Muslim women, who want to make sure they are safe, too,” says Khadija Athman, CAIR’s civil rights manager. “But at the same time, Muslim women would appreciate it if their religious beliefs would be accommodated.”

Nadia Hassan, 40, a suburban Washington, D.C., real estate agent, says she was traveling from Dulles International Airport to California on Jan. 5 when she was ordered to remove her hijab before going through a metal detector. She refused and a security officer conducted a full-body search in view of other passengers, even though she had not set off the metal detector. She says another officer told her she had to go through the added security because of her scarf.

“To target women in head scarves blindly, it’s ignorance,” she says.

Greg Soule, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, said that he did not have details about Hassan’s allegations but that the agency does not single people out by ethnicity or religion. “Individuals may be referred for additional screening if the security officer cannot reasonably determine there is no threat item in the head area.”

Khan says there is a lot of misunderstanding about the hijab. She and others say they wear it for modesty.

Conflict is not new

When Khan’s case became public, she says, Abercrombie & Fitch offered her job back if she would stay in the stockroom and out of view, and she refused.

The national retail chain has faced controversy before.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit in September alleging the retailer discriminated against a 17-year-old Muslim in Tulsa by refusing to hire her because she wore a hijab.

In 2004, the company agreed to pay $50 million to people who alleged in an EEOC lawsuit and two class-action suits that the retailer discriminated against minorities and women.

Hain, the company spokeswoman, said, “If any Abercrombie associate identifies a religious conflict with an Abercrombie policy … the company will work with the associate in an attempt to find an accommodation.”

Khan says, “The company is trying to portray this all-American look. Well, I’m American.”

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