The hijab remains a highly combustible issue in the US as evidenced by a Muslim woman who recently filed a federal suit against the Walt Disney Company on the grounds of a double whammy — religious discrimination and harassment. Not only did Imane Boudlal, a naturalized US citizen born in Morocco, endured harassment from supervisors and colleagues while working at Disney’s California theme park, she was consistently prevented from wearing the hijab until she decided to leave the company in 2010.
Boudlal asked her supervisors for permission to wear hijab when she worked at the Storyteller’s Cafe. Her request was denied and she was told that wearing the hijab would “negatively affect patrons’ experiences.”
When a Muslim woman is accosted by co-workers and supervisors with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs, when she is called “terrorist”, “camel” and “Kunta Kinte” — in reference to the slave from Alex Haley’s famous book Roots— it is hard to believe these vicious insults are being uttered in a country where everybody has the right to freely practice his or her religion.
When colleagues tell the same person that Arabs are terrorists, that she spoke a terrorist language and was trained to make bombs, it is unacceptable that such sleaze be allowed in a country which was founded by people of all faiths.
Worse still, when Boudlal, 28, reported the incidents to her managers, both verbally and in writing, results did not come immediately. In the days that followed, she was sent home at least seven times without pay for wearing her hijab to work.
She continued to alert different supervisors to the harassment. Eventually, one told her to stop complaining. When a concrete answer finally arrived, she was presented two choice —take off the hijab or work backstage” where customers wouldn’t see her — both of which were degrading, debasing and humiliating.
Management argued that the headscarf violated the restaurant’s “look” policy, and could negatively affect the “experience” of diners. An yet, the “look” policy was loosely enforced in the restaurant, with several employees sporting tattoos, jewelry or hairstyles in violation of the policy. Christian employees were also allowed to work with marked foreheads in spite of the fact that this, too, goes against the policy.
Boudlal’s story is a clear case of religious discrimination in the extreme.
She worked at the restaurant for two-and-a-half years, and there was no problem. When she started wearing her hijab to work, the problems suddenly began and her future in the job was placed in jeopardy.
In her complaint in court, Boudlal asked Disney for punitive damages and had the unselfish foresight to seek a permanent injunction not to prohibit employees from wearing hijabs and for the company anti-harassment training to include Muslim issues.
Disney calls itself the “happiest place on earth”, the famed world of make-believe. But within the walls of fairy tales also lies a story of religious intolerance in a country which claims freedom of religion but in which the hijab is still non-grata.
Boudlal’s scarf did not harm Disney or its guests. The truth is Disney did not want Boudlal to look Muslim.