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Muslim woman sues Disney over wearing hijab at work


Jae C. Hong / AP file

Imane Boudlal, right, covers her face as she leaves Disney's Grand Californian Hotel with civil rights coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations Affad Shaikh, left, in Anaheim, Calif. on Aug. 18, 2010.

Updated at 8 p.m. ET: A former Disney employee on Monday sued the California-based entertainment giant, charging harassment and religious discrimination against her based on her Muslim religion and ethnic origins in North Africa.

A Disney spokesman said the company tried to accommodate the religious beliefs of Imane Boudlal, but that the restaurant hostess rejected their efforts at compromise and quit coming to work. 

Boudlal, a 28-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Morocco, started working at the Storytellers Café, a restaurant at the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa in the Disneyland Resort, in April of 2008. She alleges in a lawsuit filed in federal court that management failed to address persistent racial and religious harassment from fellow workers and that it refused to accommodate her wish to wear a traditional Muslim headscarf or "hijab" at work, a dispute that ultimately led to her departure in 2010.

"Disneyland calls itself the happiest place on Earth, but I faced harassment as soon as I started working there," said Boudlal in the complaint filed in California Central District Court in Los Angeles. "It only got worse when I decided to wear a hijab. My journey towards wearing it couldn’t have been more American; it began at my naturalization ceremony. I realized that I had the freedom to be who I want and freely practice my religion."

In Islam, the hijab is an expression of a commitment to modesty and virtue by women, and those who choose to wear it typically do so at all times outside the home.

Boudlal worked as a hostess in the Disney restaurant — greeting and seating patrons.

Like other front-line employees and Disney cast members, she wore a uniform specifically designed for that position at Disney — in this case a long sleeved white shirt and western-style vest that are intended to evoke America at the turn of the 19th century.


Illustration of a head covering in lieu of a hijab that Disney representatives say was proposed to go with the Boudlal's uniform at Storytellers Cafe, a restaurant at its Grand Californian Hotel and Spa.

In 2010, after two years working at the restaurant, she requested permission to also wear her headscarf, a function of her growing religious conviction.

However, managers argued that the headscarf violated the restaurant's "look" policy, and could negatively affect the experience of diners, according to the complaint, drafted with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Suzi Brown, director of media relations for Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, released a statement on the allegations:  

"Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has a history of accommodating religious requests from cast members of all faiths.  We presented Ms. Boudlal with multiple options to accommodate her religious beliefs, as well as offered her several roles that would have allowed her to wear her own hijab.  Unfortunately, she rejected all of our efforts and has since refused to come to work."

The lawsuit alleges that her managers did not address her complaints of harassment by other employees, who she says taunted her with names including "camel," "terrorist" and "Kunta Kinte," a reference to the slave in the 1976 book "Roots," by Alex Haley, that later became a television miniseries.

"In fact, the 'look' policy was loosely enforced in the restaurant, withseveral employees sporting tattoos, jewelry or hairstyles in violation. Christian employees were allowed to work with marked foreheads on Ash Wednesday, in spite of the fact that this, too, goes against the stated policy," the complaint says.

Boudlal said Disney refused her efforts to compromise, such as offering to wear a scarf to match the work uniform.

Among the proposals that Disney made were several different specially designed headcoverings for Boudlal.

Disney's Brown sent an image of one of these proposed garments — which she said was the third effort to meet the employee's religious needs and the company's 'look' policy before Boudlal "refused to come to work."

The other option for Boudlal was to work in behind-the-scenes positions, out of sight of diners.

Boudlal refused these options, considering them unfair and humiliating, according to the complaint.

"This is modern day Jim Crow," said Anne Richardson, a Los Angeles attorney who represents Boudlal. "Muslims who want to express their religion by wearing a headscarf have to work in the back, out of sight."

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Speaking to NBC News by phone on Monday, Boudlal said that after leaving Disney she was fired from another job after her manager learned of her dispute with Anaheim-based Disney through an Internet search.

Thus, she has suffered loss of income, as well as depression and anxiety, said ACLU-SC attorney Mark Rosenbaum in the complaint calling for a jury trial.  

"There has been real emotional suffering here," he said Monday. Rosenbaum declined to specify damages sought on Boudlal’s behalf.

In addition, Rosenbaum said the suit aims to force a change in Disney’s policies.

"You never see anyone working there wear a hijab," he said. "We want those practices changed, and want training for employees and managers. It’s about getting Disney to change its policies and practices."

In a separate case in 2010, American Muslim Noor Abdullah was told she could not wear the hijab while working as a vacation planner at a Disney Resort Esplanade ticket booth, and she declined to take a job out of view of the public where the hijab was allowed, according to a report by NBC San Diego.

Ultimately, Disney worked with Abdullah to create a head covering that met her religious needs and the requirements of the public position, the report said.

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