When Hani Khan, who was born in New York and is of Indian and Pakistani descent, interviewed for a job at a Hollister store at a mall in San Mateo, Calif., she was wearing a traditional Muslim hijab, or head scarf.
"The manager mentioned the store's 'look policy' and said I'd have to wear either a white, navy or gray-colored scarf," Khan told AOL News. "I was fine with that."
For the next six months, Khan worked without incident in the store's stock room, a job that required she occasionally go out on to the floor to replenish the supply of clothing.
But on Feb. 9, Khan said a district manager paid a visit to the store, which is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, and that's when her troubles began. Though Khan never met or spoke to the manager that day, she said she was aware of him looking at her.
Six days later, on Feb. 15, Khan came to work and the manager was waiting for her. "He told me he wanted me to speak to a person at Abercrombie & Fitch human resources," Khan said, "And he handed me a phone."
The woman on the other end of the call informed Khan that the scarf was a violation of the store's dress code, which Khan says emphasizes a "natural look, a beachy kind of thing." Khan says she was told that employees were not allowed to wear any sort of head covering, and that the HR person asked if she would stop wearing the hijab to work.
"I told her that it was part of my religion, and that it is meant to promote modesty," Khan said. "Really, it's just a symbol, like a Jewish person wearing a yarmulke, or a Christian wearing a cross."
Khan's arguments apparently did not sway the HR representative, who informed Khan that she was being taken off the schedule.
Asked to comment on this story, Abercrombie & Fitch's press relations department did not return phone messages. On the company's corporate Web site, however, the following text appears under a heading marked "Diversity & Inclusion":
Khan said that after her conversation with the HR representative, she left work feeling stunned and confused. "I've worn the hijab since kindergarten," Khan said. "Nobody has ever had a problem with it. Even after 9/11, teachers and neighbors have always been very supportive."At Abercrombie & Fitch we are committed to increasing and leveraging the diversity of our associates and management across the organization. Those differences will be supported by a culture of inclusion, so that we better understand our customers, enhance our organizational effectiveness, capitalize on the talents of our workforce and represent the communities in which we do business.
After relaying the story to her parents, Khan decided to contact the Bay Area chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations for advice on how to handle the situation.
CAIR drafted a letter on Khan's behalf, expressing concern that the "look policy" was in violation of federal nondiscrimination laws. Zahra Biloo, CAIR's programs and outreach director, said her organization got no response.
On Feb. 22, Khan was contacted by Hollister's district manager and told to report to the store for a meeting. There, Khan says, she was again handed the telephone to speak with Abercrombie & Fitch's HR representative, who asked one more time whether she planned to remove the head scarf. "I told her no, it was a part of who I am."
The HR person then informed Khan she was fired, and the district manager in the store had her final paycheck ready and waiting.
"This is a disappointing action especially because it is so blatantly illegal," Biloo said. "And what's worse is that Hani was fired over the phone from someone at a high level in the company."
CAIR has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and notes that this is not the first time that Abercrombie & Fitch has been accused of violating federal law. In September, another Muslim teenager filed suit against the company in Tulsa, Okla., claiming that the reason she was denied employment was because she, like Khan, wore the hijab.
In 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch agreed to a $50 million settlement with the EEOC over accusations that the company routinely promoted white employees over minorities, and followed discriminatory practices in order to cultivate an all-white image in its retail stores.
Khan says that since being fired, she has been in contact with many of the employees at the store. "They want to know why this is a problem now," Khan said, "after I'd been working there for so long."
A minister at First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, United Church of Christ, Eileen Altman heard about Khan's situation, and sent Abercrombie & Fitch a letter expressing her concerns.
"I think the message the company is sending here is that their corporate image is more important than accommodating religious expression," Altman said. "I'd hope they would accommodate the needs of Muslim employees just as they would Christian or Jewish ones."
Not all of the community reaction has been positive, however, and after news outlets began reporting her story, Khan has been the target of death threats.
Biloo hopes that a combination of legal action and public pressure will lead Abercrombie & Fitch to reconsider their employee dress code.
"On a personal note," Biloo said, "if they wouldn't hire me, I don't think I want to buy their clothes."