Imane Boudlal, former employee of the Storytellers Café at Disney’s California Adventure, filed suit today in federal court against the company for harassment and religious discrimination because she is a North African Arab and a Muslim. 

The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the law firm of Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick represent 28-year-old Imane Boudlal in her lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company.  Boudlal, a U.S. citizen born in Morocco, began working at Storytellers Café in April of 2008.  From the beginning, she was subjected to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs from her coworkers and supervisors, including “terrorist,” “camel” and others.  She reported the harassment to her managers, who admitted a problem but never took action.

In 2009, Boudlal began wearing the hijab, or headscarf worn by observant Muslim women, in all public settings outside of work -- where she was afraid she would be fired for wearing it.  A year later, she decided to be true to her core beliefs and asked for permission to wear the scarf at work.  After a delay of two months, managers denied her request, saying the hijab would violate Disney’s “look” policy for its employees and would negatively affect the experience of restaurant patrons.  She offered to wear a scarf in colors matching her uniform or with a Disney logo, but they offered her a choice of either working in a back area, away from customers, or of wearing a large fedora-type hat on top of her hijab.  When she refused, she was fired.

“Disneyland calls itself the happiest place on earth, but I faced harassment as soon as I started working there,” said Boudlal.  “It only got worse when I decided to wear a hijab.  My journey towards wearing it couldn’t have been more American; it began at my naturalization ceremony.  I realized that I had the freedom to be who I want and freely practice my religion.  Neither Disney nor anyone else can take that from me.”

In fact, the “look” policy was loosely enforced in the restaurant, with several employees sporting tattoos, jewelry or hairstyles in violation.  Christian employees were allowed to work with marked foreheads on Ash Wednesday, in spite of the fact that this, too, goes against the stated policy.

“Had Imane been Princess Jasmine, a cartoon Muslim, Disney would not only have permitted her to wear a hijab, they would have exploited it,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU/SC.  “The film Aladdin grossed over 200 million dollars in revenues. But Disney’s tolerance of religious practices of Muslim women does not extend to real life women; Imane would have been acceptable to Disney only were she an animated character. This is not Mickey Mouse bigotry; it is cold and calculating religious intolerance unacceptable according to our laws and most cherished values.”

“At Disney, animated characters have more civil rights than the people who work there. This is modern day Jim Crow,” said Anne Richardson, partner at Hadsell Stormer. “Muslims who want to express their religion by wearing a headscarf have to work in the back, out of sight.”

The case is Boudlal v. Disney, and asks for a permanent injunction requiring Disney not to prohibit employees from wearing hijabs, as well as punitive damages and anti-harassment training for company employees that includes Muslim issues.