A UC Davis alumna was fired in 2010 from her stockroom job at a Bay Area Hollister for wearing a hijab, a traditional covering for the head and neck worn for religious reasons.
The then 19-year-old Hani Khan was restocking merchandise one morning when a district manager approached her on the sales floor to tell her that her headscarf violated Hollister’s “Look Policy,” a strict set of appearance instructions that prohibits employees from wearing headgear, according to Khan.
Khan said she was confused. When she first applied to the Hollister job her interviewer told her that she would be able to wear her scarf as long as she wore it in navy, grey or white, the store’s signature colors. Khan had complied, and in her five months as an employee, her hijab had never caused any issues.
After explaining the religious meaning of the scarf to the manager and refusing to remove it while she was at work — as a human resources representative suggested — Khan was suspended from work for a week, and then ultimately fired.
In the days after her firing, Khan filed a complaint against Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister’s brand parent, with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, who would eventually sue the company on her behalf.
Abercrombie & Fitch defended its decision to fire Khan with the claim that its “Look Policy” was central to the business’ success, and therefore violation of said policy would constitute undue hardship to the company.
In September 2013, three-and-a-half years after the legal struggle began, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence that hijab-clad employees would hurt Abercrombie & Fitch’s business, and that banning employees from covering up was a violation of their rights: Khan had won.
From the trying experience, she said she gained a new perspective on her religion and the head-covering practice that started her very public journey.
“When someone questions what you believe in and what you stand for, it makes you question yourself, it makes you fight for what you believe is right,” Khan said.
The case, she said, has only made her prouder to wear her hijab.
Back at Khan’s alma mater, Maheen Ahmed, a third-year community and regional development major and president of the UC Davis Muslim Student Association (MSA), said that it is instances like this that signal a greater need for awareness.
“We always say that we have freedom of expression, but when you see these types of things happen in society — where women are discriminated against and all of these stereotypes are played out through our various institutions — then it’s our job to go out and create awareness and build allies so we don’t have these problems in the future,” Ahmed said.
In an effort to combat misunderstanding and mistreatment toward Muslims and Sikhs who cover their head for religious purposes, the MSA partnered with the Sikh Cultural Association to host a Turban & Hijab-a-thon on May 14. For each non-covering student who agreed to wear a hijab or turban for the day, the two organizations pledged to donate $5 to the The Pantry.
Seventy-five students of various cultural and religious backgrounds participated in the daylong challenge, which culminated with a roundtable discussion about participants’ experiences and the ultimate meaning behind the wraps and scarves. $375 were donated to The Pantry.
The question and answer session was an hour and a half long, and by the end it was clear that the hijab was a mysterious phenomenon to many of the non-Muslim participants.
One permanent hijab-wearer who attended the reflection event works in a Davis elementary school and spends a lot of time fielding questions from youngsters about the scarf she wears into class each day.
“In the same way that I expect patience from them, I have to remember to have patience myself,” the woman shared at the roundtable.
Ahmed believes that negative portrayals of the hijab in the media have led to misconceptions about its purpose.
“A lot of people have stereotypes that Muslim women are oppressed if they wear it or are being forced to wear it,” Ahmed said. “These ideas don’t allow us to show Muslim women as confident and courageous people who do this on their own.”
When asked about the stereotype of oppression, second-year international relations major and active MSA member Hiba Saeed laughed.
“Do your research, that’s not why we wear it,” Saeed said. “The girls that wear hijab, they are the least oppressed people that I know.”
Ahmed said she chose to begin wearing her hijab to school when she was 13, even though her mother advised against it, worried about the potential mistreatment her daughter might endure post-9/11.
According to the Quran, a girl should begin wearing the hijab when she begins menstruating, and according to Ahmed, Muslim women observe wearing the hijab to strengthen their relationship with God and abide by the way of life written in the Qu’ran. The hijab is only worn around men she is not related to and is a portrayal of a Muslim woman’s faith and is a symbol of prioritizing of a woman’s mind and soul over social beauty standards.
“In Islam, women are considered gems,” Saeed said. “Why would you flaunt something that is so important to you?”
According to Ahmed, instead of oppressing them, women see the hijab and prescribed modest dress as a form of liberation from sexual objectification. Most importantly, she also said that the hijab is a reminder to a woman’s self and her community that she is committed to modesty.
“Hijab is something that I would someday like to wear, I just feel like I’m at a point in my life where I can’t appropriately represent my religion,” Saeed said. “In everything you do you represent Islam.”
SAMANTHA SPARGO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.