Disney restaurant hostess sues for permission to wear hijab

A Muslim woman who works as a hostess at a Disney-owned restaurant filed a discrimination complaint against the entertainment giant Wednesday, saying they have repeatedly sent her home without pay for refusing to remove her headscarf at work.

Imane Boudlal said she has worked as a hostess at Storyteller’s Café in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa for two years and began wearing her hijab Sunday but was told she would have to remove it or take a job working out of public view.

On Wednesday, shortly after filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Boudlal made her fourth attempt of the week — the first with videographers, photographers and reporters in tow — to begin her afternoon shift at the resort-district restaurant, which features a Chip ‘n’ Dale theme.

Boudlal said she was again told to take off her hijab, the headscarf some Muslim women wear. Boudlal refused and walked out of the hotel, flanked by chanting supporters.

“I’ve been sent home,” she said. “I thought maybe today is my lucky day because I have my friends, my supporters.”

Disney officials said Boudlal has never been denied the opportunity to work.

“She’s been allowed to work,” said Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown. “We’ve given her the opportunity to work in a backstage role the last several shifts that she’s come in.”

One backstage role the company offered was a room service cashier, an interim solution until a permanent one could be found, Brown said.

“Don’t put me in the back,” Boudlal retorted Wednesday, dressed in her work uniform of camp-style green slacks, orange vest and long-sleeved white shirt in addition to her white hijab.

Boudlal, who is from Morocco and recently became a U.S. citizen, said she approached her employer in June about wanting to wear the hijab on the job. She was told the request would have to be approved by the corporate office. When she followed up, she said, she was told the request was still under review.

Last week she was taken to the costume department to look for possible alternatives — a hat was suggested — and she was told she could not wear her own hijab, said Ameena Qazi, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing Boudlal.

“We knew Disney is very sensitive to their public image so we said, ‘Go public,’ ” said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman with Unite Here Local 11, the union that represents Boudlal.

Brown said the hijab would be a departure from the costume policy for Boudlal’s role as hostess.

“It has to do with the costume, every role at Disneyland Resort has a specific costume,” Brown said, adding that a number of employees wear religious clothing and work behind the scenes. She could not recall whether there were any who worked directly with guests.

Disneyland is working diligently to accommodate her request, Brown said.

The news conference, held on a street corner in front of the hotel where voices were occasionally drowned out by passing traffic as little girls in princess dresses walked by, was not without its references to the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

“My advice to Disney company … take a ride on one of your own rides, a little thing called ‘It’s a Small World,’ which celebrates human diversity,” Qazi said. “Imane is just celebrating that same diversity.”