Disney should lead the way on acceptance of Muslim clothing and customs
Readers of the fashion pages — invariably my first stop after checking out the latest in the Snooki Chronicles — will be aware of a breakthrough that Walt Disney Co. recently achieved in the field of religious couture.
The occasion was the request of two female “cast members” at Disneyland (that’s “employees” to you and me) to wear the Islamic hijab, or head covering, on the job. One of these cases remains unresolved at this writing, but in the other, the company accommodated Noor Abdallah, 22, by designing a hijab that both met her religious standard of modesty in dress while blending with the uniform — excuse me, “costume” — she wears to her job in the Disneyland box office in Anaheim.
The process wasn’t as smooth as it should have been. When she declined to remove her hijab during working hours, Abdallah’s supervisors initially tried to reassign her from Disneyland’s ticket sales windows to a stockroom job out of sight of parkgoers.
Abdallah held firm: “I had come there to work in a certain position, and I wanted to work with them on getting an accommodation for that position, and not being transferred to another one solely because of how I looked, not on merit,” she told me. After about two weeks of discussion, Disney costumers designed a hijab and cap arrangement that satisfied everybody as a compromise.
In the second case, Imane Boudlal, 26, a Moroccan-born hostess at the Grand Californian Hotel’s Storytellers Cafe, hasn’t accepted the design options she’s been offered. She’s currently suspended without pay.
There, too, Disney’s first instinct was to cite its costume guidelines and offer Boudlal a job without guest contact. But the guidelines also allow for some “give and take” to meet an employee’s special needs, says Suzi Brown, a Disneyland spokeswoman, and that’s the outcome the company eventually sought.
The costume policy is “still intact,” she says. In Abdallah’s case, “we’ve been able to find a solution for the cast member that meets our costuming guideline.”
The process by which it reached that solution tells us a great deal about Disney — as it is, and as it should be.
Disney has always shown a certain ability to change with the times. One can argue whether the company tends to do so early, late or just in time; I’d say that while it’s rarely a pioneer, it’s not always the last one to the party either.
Take gay issues. When the company first permitted dancing at Disneyland in 1957, it banned same-sex dancing, and even suffered a rebuff in state court in 1984 for evicting two gay men who had deliberately flouted the policy. The next year it quietly lifted the ban.
Now the company openly accommodates annual “Gay Day” weekends at Disneyland and Walt Disney World (although the company is not the events’ sponsor). In 1995 Disney instituted domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees. In a TV milestone, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her show on Disney’s ABC television network in 1997.
Has Disney made these accommodations because they’re the morally right choices, or because there are profits to be made in appealing to new markets? At a certain level, the answer is: As long as the correct outcome is achieved, who cares?
Yet Disney is no mere conventional business. Leaving aside the perennial grousing that the Disney brand homogenizes culture, the company’s pervasive influence in entertainment invests it with the responsibility to promote an inclusionary climate in its parks and products.
Why? Because the actions of influential companies like Disney are crucial in moving excluded groups into the mainstream of society. Inclusionary actions help remove the stigma of “otherness,” which encourages the casual marginalization of those groups. At whatever stage of the mainstreaming of gays into American society you think Disney started to participate in the trend, its policy changes certainly helped validate the process in the public mind.
Let’s examine Abdallah’s and Boudlal’s cases in that light.
Abdallah was admitted to Disneyland’s college intern program this spring after filling out an online application and interviewing over the phone. Disney says that’s why it was nonplussed when she showed up for orientation in a hijab and informed the company that she always wore it.
She says, however, that she first met personally with a Disney recruiter who came to her school, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and that he didn’t remark on her hijab at the time. That’s why she was surprised when supervisors pulled her out of the orientation line and expressed concerns that her garb wouldn’t work for the guest-facing job she was hired for, which involved staffing the ticket booths while taking training courses as an intern. Once Disney decided to look for a compromise, it took two weeks for its costuming staff to work up a tasteful blue hijab-and-beret arrangement Abdallah found acceptable.
Boudlal’s is a more complicated case. She has filed a discrimination claim against Disney with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is also a union member represented by Local 11 of Unite Here, whose 2,100 Disney hotel workers have been locked in a contract dispute with the company for 2 1/2 years.
Both women have also been represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has tried to play a mediating role.
The union’s view is that the larger question in Boudlal’s case is “Disney not wanting their employees to look Muslim on the job in front of guests,” in the words of Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman for the local. As for the “costume” code, Shelton says Boudlal “is not a costumed character in a show. She’s wearing a uniform.” Calling it a costume, she argues, is a construct Disney uses to allow it to discriminate.
Disneyland spokeswoman Brown, for her part, maintains that Disney always strives to be sensitive to the diversity of its workforce as well as that of its guests.
In all of this one can detect a commercial entity struggling to do the right thing, within the boundaries of its particular corporate fetishes. From what I could see on a recent day, a modest Muslim hijab would scarcely clash with the green slacks and gold-print vests worn by the Storytellers Cafe hostesses. Let’s put it this way: To claim it would undermine the costumed authenticity of the restaurant’s California-frontier decor would just be silly. It would have been encouraging for the default response of Disney supervisors to have been, “Sure, we can work something out.” Maybe that will happen the next time the issue comes up, as it surely will.
There can be no more important moment than now to avoid treating Muslim clothing or customs as strange or exotic, not while all things Islamic are brandished as tools of incitement by our most sanctimonious and untrustworthy political leaders. (I’m looking at you, Gingrich.)
Disney obviously recognizes that, at some level. But why does the process have to be so hard?
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.