A Foster City woman who is suing Abercrombie & Fitch for said she was “completely shocked” when she lost her job after she had been working at a retail store at the for four months.
Hani Khan, 20, said it was the first time in her life she had faced discrimination since she started wearing a headscarf in kindergarten. As a Muslim, she chooses to wear a headscarf, or hijab, that covers her hair, ears and neck as part of her religious practice of modesty when in public.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” Khan said.
According to the lawsuit filed today in United States District Court, Khan started working at a Hollister Co. store in San Mateo's Hillsdale Shopping in October 2009. (Hollister Co. is a subsidiary of Abercrombie & Fitch.)
Khan, who was 19 at the time, said she was looking for a job to help her pay expenses as a college student. She applied at Hollister Co. because friends worked at the store.
“They told me they were hiring, and it seemed like a fun place to work,” Khan said.
Khan said she wore her headscarf to the interview, and the hiring manager asked her if she would wear a hijab in company colors to comply with Abercrombie & Fitch’s “look policy,” which Khan said she agreed to do. The “look policy” sets guidelines for employee attire and is distributed in the employee manual, according to Zahrah Billoo, one of Khan’s attorneys from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“When I got hired by the store manager, they didn’t have a problem,” Khan said.
Khan described the “look policy” as clothes that convey a “beachy, fun vibe.” During her four months of employment, she wore jeans, a t-shirt, flip flops and her headscarf in required colors. She worked in the stockroom but made trips to the sales floor in the course of her duties.
In early February 2010, a district manager saw Khan at work while visiting the store, according to the lawsuit. On Feb. 15, the district manager called Khan into a meeting and asked her to speak on the phone with Abercrombie & Fitch’s director of human resources, Amy Yoakum, according to the lawsuit.
Khan said Yoakum told her the hijab violated the company’s “look policy” and asked her if she would remove the hijab. When she refused to do so, citing her religious beliefs, Yoakum suspended her, Khan said.
A week later, Yoakum again asked Khan if she would remove her hijab at work. When Khan again refused, Yoakum said the Abercrombie & Fitch couldn’t accommodate her religious observance and fired her, according to the complaint.
Abercrombie & Fitch could not be contacted for comment. The company is currently facing two other discrimination suits related to employees wearing headscarves.
“I think at that time, someone at the corporate office decided the diversity we celebrate in the Bay Area didn’t fit in with their ‘look policy,’” Billoo said.
“My coworkers and my manager were surprised,” Khan said. “When I came out [my manager] asked why I was leaving.”
A lifelong resident of Foster City and a product of public schools, Khan said she was used to being a minority and enjoyed diverse environments growing up.
“The hijab was never a problem,” Khan said. Though people asked her questions about her head covering, she said, “it was never regarded as anything more than an extra article of clothing.”
“After 9/11, all my neighbors, all my classmates, they all supported me,” Khan said.
Since her case has become public, Khan has received death threats, which she called “frightening.”
“They talked about decapitating my head and wrapping it around pig skin and burying it,” Khan said.
Khan filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in September 2010, the commission found that she had been wrongly terminated. Federal law requires that employers make reasonable accommodation for employees’ religious beliefs.
Conciliation efforts between Khan and Abercrombie & Fitch failed in January of this year. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed its own lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch.
Khan is represented by attorneys from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in addition to the Council on American-Islamic relations. Her lawsuit alleges that Abercrombie & Fitch violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The lawsuit requests back pay and punitive damages, but her attorney says her top priority is for Abercrombie & Fitch to change its “look policy” to allow for religiously mandated attire.