By Saadia Faruqi
October 4th, 2013
Religious accommodation in the workplace seems to be gaining strength in recent times. Last month, corporate America received a huge setback as retail giant Abercrombie and Fitch was found by a federal judge to have discriminated against a Muslim clerk who wore a Hijab to work and was subsequently fired. While that story took the nation, especially American Muslim circles by storm, I refrained from writing about it for the simple reason that there didn’t seem much else to say. A court of law of the United States had already given a powerful message that American Muslims, with our infinite rituals and practices, were part of the fabric of American life and deserved equal treatment under the law. What more could anyone add? Yet here I am less than a month later, writing about this landmark case, not to state the obvious but because it seems that this case may have set some sort of precedent for religious accommodation.
First and foremost, the Abercrombie and Fitch lawsuit has set a precedent simply based on who filed it and why. As numerous reports explained earlier this month, it was filed by a Muslim woman who was fired for wearing her Hijab to work because it went against the company’s “Look Policy”. For women of all faiths, colours, sizes and state of physical attractiveness, such a disregard for look policies in general is a huge step in a number of ways, which I won’t go into here. For Muslim women however, the case is a major achievement. While discrimination based on the Hijab (or veil or Niqab) is quite commonplace, it hasn’t been documented until recently. Studies in the United States now show that the Hijab has a negative impact on all aspects of the hiring process (Not Welcome Here: Discrimination towards Women who Wear Muslim Headscarf, Human Relations, May 2013). Similar studies in the United Kingdom also show women facing difficulties finding and keeping jobs while wearing the Hijab (Ethnic Minority Female Unemployment, All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community UK).
In the struggle for workplace-related religious freedom, Muslim women have, perhaps unwittingly, blazed a new trail. While on the one hand the Hijab makes them a target for unfair practices, it also becomes a beacon for the legal system to rally under. For most judges and juries, the fact that a woman would be fired due to her dress is such an obviously unfair concept that it begs retribution. And although the Abercrombie and Fitch lawsuit is arguably the most popular, it certainly isn’t the only one Muslim women have fought in recent times. Disney for example has been on the receiving end of at least two similar cases, with judgment pending or settled. And for the few that we read about in the papers, there are probably hundreds that never get reported.
Therefore, more than the issue of being Muslim and female in America today, this case and many others like it highlight the challenges of being a religious minority in the American workplace. Although religious accommodation in the workplace is not a new concept (in fact it’s been around since the Civil Rights era), it puts the burden on the employee to report the incident, something he or she may not feel safe doing. The fact is that employers of all types have probably been stomping on the rights of their employees to practice religious beliefs since the first person ever hired, from African slaves being denied the freedom to practice their own religious traditions a few hundred years ago to fringe Christian groups today not receiving equal treatment for Sabbath and holidays.
This lawsuit and its subsequent judgment offers hope to all those who have ever faced ridicule, harassment and even discrimination by their employers and co-workers – a fact that became apparent to me in the month of September as I read about several similar cases being filed and/or settled. For instance, a few days ago a car-dealership in California settled a $158,000 lawsuit against a Nigerian Seventh - Day Adventist employee who was refused leave on Friday nights and Saturdays for observance of the Sabbath. Similarly this month the city of Birmingham, Alabama is paying $80,000 to a Messianic Jewish woman for scheduling her for work on the Jewish Sabbath. Also this month, the EEOC has also filed a lawsuit against the owner of a KFC restaurant who fired a Pentecostal woman for wearing pants instead of the uniform dress to work.
These people and others like them prove that its acceptable and often even rewarding to stand up to unfair practices at your workplace, that you don’t have to be Muslim to get the justice you deserve, and that the future looks bright for equality and fairness in employment. Muslim women may have set a precedent in visibility but they are certainly not the only ones to benefit from a better work environment and greater accountability by employers.