Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Hijab for the Hostess

Part of wearing the “uniform” of a religious Jew is that you can’t always wear someone else’s uniform.

Let’s take, by way of example, the recent brouhaha at Disneyland over a Muslim woman wanting to wear her hijab to work as a restaurant hostess and Disney telling her she can’t wear the hijab if she wants to work a front-of-house position. Disney’s dress code is very strict, and the hijab simply didn’t fit with their requirements. The question is, then, who’s wrong? Is the woman wrong for insisting that she work her usual job (which she’s had for several years) while wearing the hijab (which she’s only wanted to wear to work for a few weeks)? Is Disney wrong for telling her she can work a back-of-house position and wear the hijab, or she can take one of their costuming solutions so that her head is covered but her outfit still fits with their dress code? Is Disney wrong for having a dress code that doesn’t allow religious expression such as a hijab?

For religious Jews, similar issues might arise. For example, a man needing to wear a kippah or other head covering might not be able to wear certain uniforms that do not allow a head covering. Or, perhaps his tzitzit get in the way or present a hazard by swinging too close to, say, a stove in a restaurant kitchen. (He could probably just tuck them inside, but bear with me.) Or perhaps a woman wants to be tzniut (dress according to the rules of modesty), but the job she wants requires her to wear pants (which are not permitted for women – more on tzniut in another post).

My feeling is this: If you want to work in a place with a strict dress code, you have to either comply with the dress code or choose not to work there, or work with the company to find you a position where you can make a dress-code modification for religious purposes. Disney was willing to work with the woman mentioned above, to give her a position out of public view so that she could wear what she needed to, but she outright refused, preferring to be sent home without pay. That’s her prerogative, certainly, but we can’t say that Disney didn’t give her other options.

I am not willing to say that having a company-wide dress code violates religious freedom, because it would typically prevent ANY type of religious dress, regardless of which religion. Certainly, religious Jews and Muslims have requirements for their dress that are more obvious than other religions’ traditional garb, but that doesn’t mean that the company is discriminating against only Jews and Muslims. The fact is that any company with a public face needs to present a consistent face to the public, in order to maintain integrity and make the customer feel comfortable. Some companies are willing to make modifications to the dress code to allow a hijab or kippah. Some are not. As these are private companies, it is entirely within their rights to make one decision or the other.

In my opinion, it probably behooves the company to make reasonable accommodations so as not to raise the ire of one religious group or another. It's not clear to me if Disney's offers to design a costume-consistent hijab or to allow her to wear it if she works back-of-house could be considered "reasonable." However, if that's the tack Disney wants to take, then it is Disney's right to do so.

A religious person makes sacrifices in many areas of his or her life in order to live according to the laws of their religion. Religious Jews don’t go out to eat with their coworkers unless it’s at a kosher restaurant. They don’t attend company events on Saturdays or holidays. They take time off without pay if they run out of personal days, vacation days, or PTO before they run out of holidays. Or, they find a job within the Jewish community so that they don’t have to make those kinds of sacrifices, but the trade-off is that many fields or types of jobs are closed to them, or they lose out on a higher income, or they end up with a longer commute. And, frankly, there are some jobs that would not be permitted for reasons totally unrelated to dress code, such as cooking and serving nonkosher food!

An Orthodox Jewish woman would not apply for a job at Hooters, because she can’t wear the uniform (in addition to the whole “serving nonkosher food” problem). A religious Jewish man should not apply for a job at a movie theater that requires one to work on Friday nights or Saturdays, unless he could work with the management to be granted a special schedule.

Anyone strict enough to want to wear the “uniform” of their religion should also be strict enough to realize that sometimes their religious uniform will clash with the uniform of the job they have or want. Then a decision must be made: religious requirements, or job duties? I think, in most cases, G-d trumps a human boss.

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