A University of Mary Washington junior says she was fired because she refused to remove her Islamic headscarf on her first day of work at Dulles International Airport, and she has filed a discrimination complaint against her former employer, Air France.
Riham Osman, an international affairs major, has petitioned the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to look into her firing.
Currently, the EEOC is investigating the French airline and Aerotek, the recruiting company that hired her, Osman said. She said that the EEOC told her on Oct. 26 that Air France had asked for more time to complete its statement regarding the situation, and were given until Monday, Oct. 31, to submit its statement. She has not yet heard from the EEOC regarding their response.
The EEOC did not reply to a request for comment.
According to the EEOC website, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment.”
In 2010, 3,790 religion-based discrimination charges were filed through the EEOC.
Osman had only held her summer job with the airline for six hours on June 2 when she was pulled aside because her hijab, or headscarf, violated the airline’s uniform policy, she said. Osman is a practicing Muslim.
Recounting her first – and last – day at work, Osman said she rose early and picked out a white scarf so it would complement her navy Air France uniform. Near noon, a manager approached her, she recalled, and told her she was violating corporate dress code. After she refused to remove the scarf, she said, she was asked to leave.
“It was kind of like time stopped and slowed,” Osman said. “I took it very seriously. At first I didn’t know it was discrimination; it didn’t hit me.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a grassroots civil rights and advocacy group for Muslims headquartered in Washington, D.C., has been supporting Osman through the ordeal.
“Discrimination based on what we call hijab, or Islamic head scarf, is unfortunately common,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. He said that usually this type of discrimination occurs in the workplace. “Women are protected by law, but often that isn’t translated into actual practice.”
A letter sent from CAIR to Air France stated, “Air France must follow American law and grant reasonable religious accommodations for its employees,” according to a Facebook support group.
Osman was hired to work with Air France at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., by Aerotek. She said she wore her hijab to her interview, and it didn’t seem to be a problem.
“I never thought they would have a problem with it,” she said. “I just never thought they would do that in America…the feeling of being discriminated against, it’s kind of like you don’t matter.”
Neither Air France nor Aerotek responded to requests for comment.
However, in a previous article published in the Fairfax Times, an Air France representative in New York confirmed that the airline was investigating the situation, stating that Air France is “committed to EEOC policies concerning diversity” and the airline “complies with all appropriate human rights and discrimination laws.”
After Osman was terminated from Air France, Aerotek offered her several other positions, which she declined.
“I don’t want to work for them anymore,” she said.
In a statement published by the Fairfax Times, Aerotek said, “Air France declined to make this accommodation [to allow Osman to wear the hijab] and instructed us to end her assignment at Air France.”
Osman has received worldwide support. The Facebook group “Riham Osman Against Air France” has garnered 779 fans, asking people to ban Air France until the airline apologizes.
“I didn’t realize how far it would get,” Osman said. “It was nice having a lot, a lot of support.”
Full-face veils in France have become controversial. In April, a law banning Islamic veils in France came into effect. France is the first European country to publicly ban the religious headwear, with violation consequences ranging from a fine of 150 euros (or $209), to lessons in French citizenship, according to the Huffington Post.
For Osman, wearing her hijab makes her more comfortable with her identity. She started wearing it during the second semester of her freshman year.
“I feel so much more confident when I’m wearing it,” she said. “I know who I am now.”
Currently, Osman’s case is moving slowly. Hooper said that since the charges are against a foreign corporation, it might take more time than it would with a U.S.-based company. But, Osman is prepared to follow through.
“If it has to turn into a lawsuit, I’m willing to do it,” Osman said. “This is absolutely not fair, choosing between my religion and job. Nobody should ever be in that position.”
Photo courtesy of Riham Osman.