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Nobody Puts Bashir in the Corner

Nobody Puts Bashir in the Corner

Screen shot 2011-07-12 at 16.28.55.pngWhere I went to school, we learnt algebra from a mother-of-seven with an impressive selection of floral hijabs (headscarves). We all knew never to mess around during Ramadan - her temper was fierce when she was hungry. We were taught music by a young man who wore a Dastaar (turban) and used to rock out Beethoven on his sitar if we all handed in our homework on time. Friends used to have henna parties and danced to Bollywood like it was Britney Spears. At our year 9 arts recital, the Michael Jackson moonwalkers were followed by an enactment of the Hindu love story of Rama and Sita. I played Sita. No one blinked when most of the class came in wearing sarees on dress down day, or when Malpreet was cast as Mary in the nativity. It was like the little multicultural Utopia of Tiffin Girls' School.

If only the whole world was like that.

Last week I sat opposite the Chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission discussing how it was possible that American men and women who wish to display symbols of their faith can find themselves segregated on the grounds of "corporate image." As far as I was concerned, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to segregate employees or job applicants "in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." (42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(2))

Notwithstanding this provision, at least two federal courts in recent years have misinterpreted Title VII in ways that allow employers to segregate visibly religious employees and job applicants from customers and the general public without, apparently, violating the law. In one case involving a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, a court claimed that segregating her from customers did not deprive her of "employment opportunities" or otherwise "adversely affect [her] status as an employee." (Ali v. Alamo Rent-a-Car, et al. 2001) Is it possible that the justices really thought that putting Ms. Ali in a back-room would have no impact on her status as an employee? In another case, a different court held that an employer satisfied its Title VII obligation to make a "reasonable accommodation" of a turbaned Sikh employee by offering him only positions out of public view (Birdi v. United Airlines, Corp. 2002).

These misinterpretations, and the discriminatory impact they have on the individuals whose religious observance encompasses adherence to dress and grooming requirements, are deeply troubling. It seems clear that segregating such individuals in the name of "corporate image" policies is inherently unreasonable. Such policies reinforce bigoted stereotypes about what American workers should look like, prevent employees of faith from gaining customer service experience, and clearly undermine the integrative purpose of Title VII. Quite simply, workplace segregation is discrimination.

A diverse faith coalition articulated this point clearly to Chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien at last week's meeting, and left with the beginnings of a new partnership to help clarify once and for all that religious accommodations requiring segregation from customers in the name of corporate image undeniably constitutes adverse employment actions and can never be deemed "reasonable" under Title VII. This clarification will be consistent with the EEOC guidance on racial discrimination, which categorically forbids racial segregation and denies that race or color can ever be considered a bona fide occupational qualification under Title VII.

I'm not saying that Gillette should be forced to hire a Sikh model, but give me one good reason why a woman with a headscarf can't give me my car keys at Alamo. No person qualified for a job should ever suffer the humiliation of being hidden from customers because of their skin color, or because of their hijab, Dastaar, or kippah. A strong stance against workplace segregation is the only way to be faithful to the intent of Title VII.

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