Bank refuses to serve woman in hijab

A woman who was refused service at a bank in California because she was wearing the hijab says she has yet to receive an apology from the company.

SAN DIEGO, CA(USA)-FEB 11:  Amal Hersi stands in Balboa Park in San Diego, CA on Wednesday, February 11, 2009.  Hersi was told to remove her head scarve when she went to her local bank.(Photo by Sandy Huffaker for The National) *** Local Caption ***  Hersi1.jpg
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NEW YORK // A woman who was refused service at a bank in California because she was wearing the hijab says she has yet to receive an apology from the company. Amal Hersi, 26, said she was reviewing her options but did not comment on whether she planned to file a lawsuit against the Navy Federal Credit Union. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) said it had asked the department of justice to investigate whether the bank violated her rights. "I never thought in a million years that something like this would happen to me," said Ms Hersi, who used to work as a teacher's assistant at a US Marines base, where she said she never suffered any discrimination.

The bank incident happened on Jan 31 in San Diego, where Ms Hersi is a nursing student. While she was waiting to cash a cheque, Ms Hersi was tapped on the shoulder by a female bank employee and was asked to follow her. "I had to walk past about 40 people in the bank and they started talking among themselves. I felt humiliated, like a criminal," said Ms Hersi, who was born in Somalia and moved to the US with her family when she was eight. "The woman took me to an office where she asked me to wait while she dealt with a customer, as if I wasn't a customer. I felt like a second-class citizen, like a nobody."

Eventually, Ms Hersi was told she would have to take off her headscarf to be served. She explained that wearing the garment was a religious requirement and it did not obscure her eyes or the rest of her face, allowing security cameras to monitor her. But she was told the bank had a new policy requiring all customers to remove hats, hoods and sunglasses. "I told her again the hijab is religiously mandated and I have to wear it but she refused to cash my cheque," Ms Hersi said. Within days of the incident, she contacted Cair. The bank said in a statement that "special consideration for cultural and religious garments is under the discretion of the branch management" and that it was making inquiries into the incident.

Ms Hersi said the bank had apologised to the media but not to her. "They said they would contact me but I haven't heard anything. I'm not sure what I'm going to do but I'm keeping all my options open." Cair, which filed a civil-rights complaint with the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said it had investigated similar incidents across the country. "Under this bizarre and discriminatory policy, no Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, no Sikh man wearing a turban, no Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, no Catholic nun wearing a habit, no cancer survivor wearing a scarf, no Amish woman wearing a bonnet, and no blind person wearing sunglasses may enter a Navy Federal Credit Union branch nationwide," said Edgar Hopida, a Cair spokesman. The Community Bank of the Bay in Oakland, California, recently apologised to a Muslim woman who was likewise refused service because she wore the hijab. The bank's president blamed the incident on an "overzealous" employee who was "not exercising good judgement". Partly in response to such incidents, Cair produced a booklet titled An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices to help corporate managers have a better understanding of Muslims. "Banks and companies need to make their policies more precise," Mr Hopida said. "If policies are vague and it's left to employees to make these kinds of decisions, then they'll get more problems and phone calls from us." Meanwhile, some US states appear to be more progressive than others. Oklahoma recently announced that a Muslim driver would be allowed to retake her driver's licence photograph while wearing the hijab. Only the states of Georgia, Kentucky and New Hampshire had not addressed religious accommodation concerns, according to Cair.