SAN MATEO, Calif. - Hani Khan never set out to be the next lightning rod of the culture wars, testing the limits of religious acceptance in the San Francisco Bay Area and the retail industry.
Unfazed by the blaring pop rock, haze of cologne and sepia-toned posters of bare-chested surfers, she walked confidently into a Hollister Co. clothing store last fall, sat down for an interview and secured a part-time job. The 19-year-old liked that she could go to work in flip-flops, jeans and a color-coordinated hijab, the head scarf she wears as an expression of her Muslim faith.
Khan was born in New York to an Indian father and Pakistani mother and raised in California. The sophomore at the College of San Mateo, who lives in Foster City, has worn a head scarf in her classrooms since kindergarten. She wore it playing second base for the softball team at San Mateo High School.
"To me, it symbolizes my faith, where I'm coming from," she said. "People don't focus on my beauty so much as they focus on my intelligence, on what I have to say."
In the broad-minded Bay Area, no one ever argued with that.
Except, last month, at Hollister, the spinoff of Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch that she says fired her for wearing the hijab to work almost five months after she started there.
Abercrombie & Fitch has refused to comment on its dress policy or on Khan, who filed a federal discrimination complaint against the company last week. News of the dispute, which is likely to be investigated by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has drawn a diverse reaction.
At the crux of the debate is how inclusive employers should be when a worker's appearance clashes with the message the company wants to project.
"A company like Abercrombie & Fitch, and particularly the Hollister brand, is really selling not just clothing but a lifestyle, an image," said Jo-Ellen Pozner, who teaches organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. "It is normal for organizations to recruit and socialize their staff in a way that's consistent with the image they're trying to get across to their customers."
From an ethical standpoint, however, it seems to Pozner that the company went too far.
"It's entirely appropriate until the line where it invades someone's civil liberties," she said.
Building a unique and uniform brand - in Hollister's case, one associated with a made-up Southern California beach town - is part of the business model.
But there was nothing in the employee guide, known as the Look Policy, that seemed to expressly prohibit a scarf over Khan's head as long as she wore the right colors. The only reference to headgear was a ban on caps.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace, was amended in 1972 to be more specific. Workers can express their religious beliefs however they want, the law says, unless it creates "undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."
Libertarian scholar Richard Epstein believes civil rights activists often ignore the costs to businesses of the government impinging on their hiring preferences and ability to create a corporate identity.
"In a firm, image matters," said Epstein, a lawyer and professor at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The world of branding is: Small things matter. My view is the branding guys have it right. Abercrombie & Fitch knows more about their workplace than I do, and more about their workplace than the EEOC."
Still, for Khan and countless other Muslim women in the Bay Area, wearing a scarf in the workplace is an ordinary part of life. "As Muslims, we believe it's God's order to cover our self and dress in a certain way," said Alaa Suliman, a 27-year-old engineer who has always worn a hijab, without incident, at her Silicon Valley jobs. "It also means you're not looked at as a sex object."
Suliman works in technology, where her interactions with customers are few. But is having a hijab-wearing employee, who works mostly in the stockroom of a clothing store, an undue hardship to a brand that promotes sex appeal?
"She was stocking clothes. She has the right to do that and not face religious discrimination," said Zahra Billoo, the Bay Area representative for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, who helped Khan file her complaint.
"Abercrombie does not get special exemptions because they are a sexualized market of clothing."