A former stockroom worker for Abercrombie & Fitch Co. sued the clothing retailer in federal court Monday, saying she was illegally fired after refusing to remove her Muslim headscarf while on the job.
Hani Khan said a manager at the company's Hollister Co. store at the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo hired her while she was wearing her hijab. The manager said it was OK to wear it as long as it was in company colors, Khan said.
Four months later, the 20-year-old says a district manager and human resources manager asked if she could remove the hijab while working, and she was suspended and then fired for refusing to do so.
It's the latest employment discrimination charge against the company's so-called "look policy," which critics say means images of mostly white, young, athletic-looking people. The New Albany, Ohio-based company has said it does not tolerate discrimination.
Still, Abercrombie has been the target of numerous discrimination lawsuits, including a federal class action brought by black, Hispanic and Asian employees and job applicants that was settled for $40 million in 2004. The company admitted no wrongdoing, though it was forced to implement new programs and policies to increase diversity.
"Growing up in this country where the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, I felt let down," Khan, now a college student studying political science, said at a news conference. "This case is about principles, the right to be able to express your religion freely and be able to work in this country."
Abercrombie defended its record in a comment provided to The Associated Press, saying diversity in its stores "far exceeds the diversity in the population of the United States."
"We comply with the law regarding reasonable religious accommodation, and we will continue to do so," said Rocky Robbins, the company's general counsel. "We are confident that when this matter is tried, a jury will find that we have fully complied with the law."
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco comes after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in September that Khan was fired illegally. Khan's lawsuit was filed in conjunction with the EEOC's lawsuit.
It is not the first time the company has been charged with discriminating against Muslim women over the wearing of a hijab.
In 2009, Samantha Elauf, who was 17 at the time, filed a federal lawsuit in Tulsa, Okla., alleging the company rejected her for a job because she was wearing a hijab. That case is still ongoing.
The EEOC filed another lawsuit for the same reason, saying the company denied work to a hijab-wearing woman who applied for a stocking position in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store at the Great Mall in Milpitas, Calif.
Khan's attorney said her client is looking to get Abercrombie to change its "look policy" to allow religious headscarves to be worn by employees, and for unspecified damages. The lawsuit alleges violations of federal and state civil rights and employment laws.
"Abercrombie prides itself on requiring what it calls a natural classic American style. But there's nothing American about discriminating against someone because of their religion," said Araceli Martinez-Olguin, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center.
"Such a look policy cannot be squared with our shared values. No worker should have to choose between their religion and their job."