Not Such a Small World, After All: Disney’s Latest Discrimination

Not Such a Small World, After All: Disney’s Latest Discrimination September 9, 2010

In the latest hijab shake-down, Imane Boudlal was taken off the schedule as a hostess at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel because she insisted upon her right to wear hijab to work.

Boudlal, a Moroccan-born Muslim woman, already wore the hijab at home, but said that she learned of her Constitutional right to wear it to work while studying for her U.S. citizenship exam a few months ago. In accordance with Disney’s notoriously stringent employee agreement, Boudlal asked her manager in June whether an exception could be made for her religious expression. Her manager said the request would have to be approved by Disney corporate, which had Boudlal fitted after some time for a Disney-approved headscarf. When she followed up two months later, the hijab was still not ready, and she received no further word from corporate. The hostess of two years then decided to wear her hijab to work—a hijab that, it should be noted, is the same color as the Disney uniform at the café and is remarkably discreet—at the beginning of this year’s Ramadan, and was promptly removed from the work schedule.

Suzi Brown, a Disney spokeswoman, said that the company was making every effort to accommodate Boudlal. These efforts included offers to work “backstage,” operating phones or working in a bakery for the same pay as Boudlal’s hostess position, and to wear a poorly fashioned bonnet-and-hat creation that ostensibly works better with “the Disney look,” as it’s called. Boudlal has said that she is willing to accept a “simple and decent” Disney alternative to her hijab, but that she won’t be pushed into a back room. On August 18th, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her case has been picked up by both the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the 2,100-person local hotel union, UNITE HERE.

Disney has proven disobliging in the past, but it recently relaxed its antediluvian dress code (so we at least know that “the Disney look” can move, if only 50 or so years behind the times). Interestingly, the company had a nearly identical problem in 2004, when Aicha Baha was fired from a Disney position in Florida for refusing to remove her hijab at work. That case, however, was settled out of court almost a year later.

That Disney is making few concessions in the current case with Boudlal, despite her substantial backing by both the union and CAIR, could very well be reflective of the current national climate. Far from discussing religious freedom as a larger and ongoing issue with private companies, comment boards online are teeming with xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, placing Boudlal’s struggle within a long line of incidents that portend the “Islamization of America.”

Given the three-month frenzy of anti-Muslim media and the politicization of Park51, Disney corporate truly couldn’t pick a better time to fight a long battle with a Muslim woman over her hijab—which is sad for its religious employees, of course, but also for its larger image as representative of the diverse American cultural landscape.

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