Muslim woman sues Disneyland, says she lost her job over headscarf

By Kate Mather

Los Angeles Times (Mct)

Published: Monday, Aug. 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Imane Boudlal, a former hostess at Disneyland, announced a federal civil rights lawsuit against Disney, during a press conference at the ACLU of Southern California in Los Angeles on Monday, August 13, 2012. Boudlal is suing the company because she was not allowed to wear a religious headscarf while working. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Mel Melcon, Mct

LOS ANGELES — Imane Boudlal got a job two weeks after moving to California, a hostess position at a Disneyland Resort cafe.

She didn't log many hours at first — it was April, the slow season — but as the summer of 2008 progressed, the 24-year-old worked more frequently as the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa's Storyteller's Cafe drew more tourists.

It was also, Boudlal alleges in a lawsuit filed last Monday, when her co-workers began taunting her, calling the Moroccan-born Muslim a "terrorist," "camel," someone who learned how to make bombs at her mosque. She complained to her managers both verbally and in writing, she said, with no results.

Now, Boudlal is suing the Walt Disney Co. in federal court, saying she was discriminated against and harassed for her religious beliefs. She also alleges she unfairly lost her job in 2010 after refusing to remove her head scarf at work.

"It's been hard," Boudlal said in an interview. "I thought it was just a matter of complaining and a few days and it wouldn't affect my life, but it turns out ... nothing has been done."

The lawsuit claims Boudlal, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, decided to wear her hijab full time in 2010, about eight months after she began wearing it publicly. She contacted her supervisors at Disneyland to request an exemption to the company's "look" policy — general appearance guidelines that, according to a Disney website, touch on items ranging from contact lens color and visible tattoos to personal hygiene.

After weeks of back-and-forth with company officials, the lawsuit says, Boudlal received initial approval to wear a Disney-designed scarf, but was told it would need the corporate office's OK before she could wear it to work. Not wanting to wait to mark Ramadan, Boudlal wore her own hijab to work Aug. 15, 2010, when she says she was told she could either remove the scarf, cover it with a hat or work in a job out of public sight.

She refused and, after a few additional meetings with Disney, filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency awarded Boudlal a "notice of right-to-sue" earlier this month, opening the door for litigation.

Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said the company tried to accommodate Boudlal's needs — as it has with religious requests from other employees from various 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," Brown said. "Unfortunately, she rejected all of our efforts and has since refused to come to work."

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who is representing Boudlal, said his client has not been scheduled to work at the cafe since Aug. 21, 2010. He said Boudlal was suffering from "one of the byproducts" of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I think her experience is not unlike that of many Muslims," he said. "America was invented based on our commitment to religious freedom and that got lost or shredded after 9/11. (The lawsuit) is an attempt to recapture this."

"If you're a Muslim," he said of Disneyland, "It's not the happiest place on earth."

Shortly after Boudlal's dispute with Disney went public in 2010, another Muslim employee said she was also told she would have to work out of sight if she chose to wear a hijab. Disney officials said they were able to reach a compromise with Noor Abdallah, then a 22-year-old intern from Chicago, and allowed her to wear a fitted blue scarf topped by a beret-style hat.

The lawsuit seeks damages for Boudlal, as well as harassment and discrimination training for Disney employees. It also asks the court to order Disney to allow Muslim employees to wear hijabs in public roles without a hat or other cover.

Boudlal has a degree in hotel management, an industry she thought would allow her to travel the world and meet people. Now, after a quick Google search turns up news of her dispute with Disney, she doesn't think she'll be hired. She said she's taking classes at California State University, Fullerton, in hopes of finding a new career path.

"I just want to pick something that will get me a job," she said.

©2012 Los Angeles Times; Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services

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