Fighting religious discrimination at the mall

When the Hollister chain banned her hijab at work, a young Muslim battled back


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Hani Khan
September 9, 2011 4:32AM (UTC)

Hani Khan, 20, was born in New York to Indian and Pakistani parents. She grew up in Foster City, Calif. Hani spoke to us about being fired from Hollister (a clothing store chain owned by Abercrombie & Fitch) after refusing to remove her hijab, a head covering traditionally worn by Muslim females. After taking her story public, Hani received hostile comments and death threats, and found it difficult to secure another job.

I am an American-born Muslim. I am the typical American girl. I hang out with my friends; I have fun; I listen to Taylor Swift. It's just a piece of fabric that sets me apart.

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There comes a point where you can't be a flip-flop anymore. I'd been wearing the hijab since kindergarten, but I didn't start wearing it full-time till I was in high school. For me, the hijab represents modesty and it represents how women in Islam want to be viewed -- for what they have to say, for their personality, for their intelligence. I had to find that conviction inside of me.

In October 2009, I applied for a job at the Hollister store at the local mall. A lot of my friends had after-school jobs at the mall. If you work there you get to see your friends, and they come and visit and kick it with you.

At the interview, the manager asked me about my hijab. He said the store had a beachy, laid-back vibe and told me what the dress code was: the colors were navy, grey and white. I said, "It's fine. I have those three colors."

He said, "Then it won't be a problem."

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I'd been working there for just over four months, when one day, on February 9, 2010, the district manager came into the store. He didn't acknowledge me. Pretty standard, I thought, since he's district manager and he has to oversee a lot of things. All day I was going in and out of the stockroom to the floor, so I wasn't really paying attention to him. It was pretty much a normal day.

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Six days later, the next time I was in for work, the district manager was there again. He said he would like to put me on the phone with human resources (HR) at corporate.

I spoke with a woman from HR, who said, "We recently became aware of the fact that you wear a headscarf."

I said, "Yeah, it's part of my religion. I've been wearing it since I was hired."

Then she told me that my hijab didn't conform to their store policy, that no headgear is allowed -- no caps, scarves, anything like that.

It was frustrating. Because I was put on the phone with her, she didn't get a chance to see me. I wanted her to see that I was wearing jeans, I was wearing company colors, and that the only thing different you'd notice about me was that I was wearing a scarf.

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She said, "Well, will you be able to conform to our store policy?"

I told her that wasn't acceptable. I said I was not going to take off my scarf for work. Then she let me know that they had to talk to their lawyers, and that I would be taken off the schedule until further notice. She was trying to be cheery, but it sounded like she really wanted me to understand what was happening.

I went to clock out. I was crying, because I'd never had a negative experience regarding my hijab before, even after 9/11. The store managers could see that I was upset, and I let them know what had occurred. One of the managers was studying to become a lawyer, and he said that this was unjust.

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I called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) the next day and went to talk to a lawyer there. She gave me handouts about civil rights and the Constitution, and about religious gear being accommodated at the workplace. She said, "When they call you in for the next meeting, take that with you."

The week after the first incident, I went in and I gave the district manager the handouts. He glanced at them but he didn't say anything. I guess he realized I was talking to someone at that point.

He put me on the phone with the woman from HR again, and again she let me know about their "beachy vibe" dress code. She asked me explicitly, "Would you be able to take your headscarf off when you come to work?"

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I said, "That's not acceptable. It's a part of my religion, and it's a part of who I am. I've been wearing it for so long, I'm not going to take it off for you." Then she told me I was no longer working for their company. I think they were prepared for what was going to happen, because the district manager already had my last paycheck ready with my name on it.

The girl who's stirring up trouble

The lawyer at CAIR told me we could file a complaint with the EEOC and let the public know the injustice that had occurred. I said okay. I thought, We can either let this injustice slide by and it's going to happen to the next person, or we can take action about it.

So CAIR sent out a press release about my situation, and the next day I was interviewed by all the local TV stations, including CBS, KTVU and ABC. It was really fast -- one station would come, and then I would get a call that another one was on their way. My face was blurred out. I wanted to remain anonymous because of personal safety, but also because I was going to try to find another job. I didn't want people to recognize me and be like, "Oh, that's the Hollister girl, that's the girl who's stirring up trouble."

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The day after the TV interviews, a hate letter was sent to the CAIR office saying I should go back to my country. It said someone should behead me and wrap me in a pig carcass and bury it in a mosque.

Some people wrote comments online saying I was sent in to be a spy. They said I wasn't wearing the hijab at my job interview and that I started wearing it after. I don't know who at 19 would go, "I'm gonna infiltrate a company and I'm gonna take them down."

There were also people who wrote, "Go back to your country." But this is my country. I was born here, you were born here, so this is our country. How are you going to tell me, just because I wear a scarf, to go back to my country? I don't have anywhere else to go back to.

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Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch declined to release a statement. A friend from work let me know that nobody at work was allowed to talk about the situation and that, funny enough, they had to sign a new policy stating that no headgear was allowed.

After the story went public, they offered me my job back, but they said that I would be working exclusively in the stock room. I refused, because that's like you're not good enough to stay in the front, you're going to stay in the back. I thought that was segregation at best.

I've tried hard to find another job, especially in retail. But since Hollister is the last thing on my resume, people want to know why I'm no longer with the company. Although nobody's mentioned it to me, I feel like they're aware of the situation. I went in for two interviews at the mall, and when I called them, there would always be an excuse, like, "Oh, I'll have the store manager get back to you," and then the store manager never got back to me.

I'm worried, especially in this economy when it's hard enough to find a job.

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I don't want to be known as "That Hollister girl." I'm not ashamed of it, but it's not something that I'm publicizing. But I do feel proud of myself that I actually took the step. I just didn't want to be a quiet bystander. I know a lot of people are letting cases slide because they don't want the attention.

I think my generation and the next generation are not going to be afraid of the hijab. I'm studying political science at UC Davis, and I'm hoping after I'm done with undergrad I can go to law school. I don't want to work for a corporation. I want to be helping people, so that's where I'm hoping to go with my future.

What happened made my identity stronger. It made me realize how important the hijab really is to me, and why I need to continue to wear it.

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From "Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice," edited by Alia Malek and published by Voice of Witness. This oral history collection tells the stories of men and women who have been needlessly swept up in the War on Terror. Narrators recount personal experiences of the post-9/11 backlash that have deeply altered their lives and communities. For more information on the book and to learn more about Voice of Witness visit www.voiceofwitness.org.


Hani Khan

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