The Cost And Courage Of Wearing A Scarf: Hani Khan’s Story

Hani Khan woke up on February 15 and got ready for her day. She laid out her clothes, put on some lip-gloss, and wrapped the hijab around her head, the religious head covering she has been wearing since kindergarten. She walked into her job at Hollister at the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo, California and punched her employee ID into the system as usual but that day, something seemed off.

“When the district manager came in for a special visit, I felt him staring at me,” Khan said, but she went about her work as normal.  When Khan came back from her lunch break, she found the district manager 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 the phone."

The Abercrombie and Fitch Human Resources Representative told Khan that her scarf was in violation of the company’s policy on headgear and told her that in order for her to continue her job, Khan would have to remove her hijab.

Khan explained she could not take it off due to her personal beliefs.  "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." The district manager then sent Khan home for the day, telling her the headgear was unacceptable.

When Khan was next on the schedule, she went into work as usual, with her hijab on.  The district manager was again waiting for her and they both participated in a teleconference with Abercrombie & Fitch’s corporate offices. Corporate asked her if she was willing to take of her scarf, and again Khan told them no. “It [is] a part of who I am. I wear the scarf because I don’t want to be objectified. I'd rather be acknowledged for my intelligence and what I have to say instead of how I look,” Khan told them.

After the phone call, Khan was fired and when she walked out of the back room, the district manager was waiting with her final paycheck.

Khan says she is still does not understand why she was let go.  When she applied for the job, she went to the interview with the hijab on and her store manager was fully aware that the hijab was not something she was willing to compromise about. When the district manager saw Khan for the first time, the store manager could not side with her.

“The manager didn't have a say. The district manager is in a higher position. The manager and district manager probably had some discussions that I'm not aware of since she didn't say anything to me,” Khan explained.

According the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), job discrimination grievances have more than doubled since 2001. 425 Muslim women reported discrimination in the workplace to the EEOC in 2009. The intolerance lies not only at work, but at the airport too. Lately, many Muslims have reported unjust treatment in airport security checks. Greg Soule, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration said, “Individuals may be referred for additional screening if the security officer cannot reasonably determine there is no threat item in the head area.”

The civil rights manager of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Khadija Athman explained, “Most people understand the need for safety, including Muslim women, who want to make sure they are safe, too. But at the same time, Muslims women would appreciate it if their religious beliefs would be accommodated.”

Khan’s case against the company remains stagnant and the effects are lasting. “The EEOC is still in the midst of investigating and asking both parties. [Abercrombie] is such a big corporation making it very difficult to get a hold of people,” she said. Abercrombie representatives refuse to comment on the situation.

“Being fired from Hollister affects me when I am trying to find a job,” Khan said. “Of course during interviews they ask me “Why did you leave your last job?” And I have this firing on my W2 and my tax records, which tie me to that company. It has become a nuisance. It’s hard enough to get a job in this dwindling economy, and adding this to my record doesn’t make it any easier.”

Although the Abercrombie Corporation has been indifferent about Khan’s case, many other people have shown their support. Khan found encouragement not only in the Ummah, but in other communities as well. “So many people reached out to me from different communities, different religions, and cultures. It’s a good feeling knowing that people support you, and are fighting for the injustice that occurred.”

Despite a show of affection from Khan’s community, not everyone was supportive. Khan received death threats and the hostility toward her situation amplified through online forums telling her to go back to her country and to act like an American.  Khan laughs these comments off, “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 sets me apart.” Some people were more graphic when it came to commenting on Khan’s case.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations released a statement, citing the following hate message: "What Abercrombie & Fitch should do is pour pig grease on the floor every place this rag head muslim [sic] walks...Then have I.C.E. revoke her work visa and citizenship papers, arrest her on the spot upon leaving Fitch and deport her back to muslin [sic] land immediately. If she refuses to leave the country, cut off her head just like the muslim [sic] rag heads did to Philip Berg...Take her head and her carcass out to a pig farm in the valley and rap [sic] her head and her carcass in pig skin and bury them both." CAIR notified the FBI to conduct an investigation.

As for an outcome, Khan hopes the company would follow their policy. “Their policy says they do not discriminate, but that’s not true. I am proof of that. They don’t hire people with scarves to work in manager positions. The girls who do wear scarves, work in the back. Abercrombie told me that if I did come back, I would be asked to work in the backroom. It’s ridiculous and I want nothing to do with them.” Going from stocking to being in the backroom was something that Khan feels was disrespectful. “I feel like it was segregation all over again. Like, “I'm sorry, you're not good enough to work in the front, you're going in the back.” It was just absurd. I don’t understand how a scarf hinders your store and the customers. [Instead,] It would only increase the population that would be shopping there if another Hijabi saw me working.” Khan has made the personal choice to no longer shop at Abercrombie & Fitch in order to avoid advertising their merchandise.

Despite the negativity Khan has endured, she still looks on the positive side of things. “I would say I am a stronger person after all this. It reconfirmed my faith in Islam and redefined what the hijab means to me.”

Khan plans on attending UC Davis in the fall as a third year, majoring in Political Science. She wants to attend law school after receiving her Bachelor’s Degree so she can help others fight for inequality. “There is so much injustice in this world and I want to get rid of some of that.” Discrimination is never a blessing, but it can be an inspiration, and Hani Khan’s story proves exactly that.

                                Unsa Suhail

Unsa is entering her third year of college studying convergence journalism.