Hijab costs Primbee woman her office job

Mariam El Hassan let her boss in on a secret – she was going to start wearing a headscarf from the Muslim feast day Eid al-Adha.

But the move to don the traditional headscarf cost the Primbee woman her job at a Warrawong accountancy firm.

She told her boss at Master Tax Service and Finance in June that she wanted to start wearing the hijab to work in October.

Her repeated requests to wear the scarf were met with deferral and then refusal, with her boss saying: ‘‘I’m not going to have you wearing that out the front’’.

Mrs El Hassan said she was asked not to come into work the day she was going to start wearing the headscarf and was forced to resign.

However, Master Tax Service and Finance’s lawyer, Meagan Donnelly, said the company had done what it could to accommodate Mrs El Hassan.

‘‘The employer is known for employing many people of various religious backgrounds, including Muslims, and has always made sure her workplace is one that practises religious tolerance, including having a prayer room in the workplace.’’

Mrs El Hassan has lodged a complaint with Fair Work Australia against her former employer for contravening the Fair Work Act.

She claimed the company discriminated against her and took adverse action, leading to her resignation.

Her boss’s reaction was ‘‘uncalled for, unexpected and harsh’’, Mrs El Hassan said.

‘‘I was very upset, very shocked and very hurt.

‘‘I just cried that whole night. I was very emotional.’’

Mrs El Hassan said when she first notified her boss in June of her intention to wear the hijab, she was told to wait until after the tax season.

In September, the junior accountant again raised the issue with her boss.

The conversation that followed was detailed in documents tendered to the commission:

Applicant: ‘‘I want to speak to you again about wearing a headscarf.’’

Manager: ‘‘I’m not going to have you wearing that out the front.’’

Applicant: ‘‘What do you mean, I can sit out the back?’’

Manager: ‘‘Why at your hens’ night were all the women non-scarved? If it’s so important why doesn’t every Muslim woman wear it?’’

Applicant: ‘‘We don’t have to wear it in front of other women.’’

Manager: ‘‘That’s pathetic.’’

The day Mrs El Hassan intended to wear her headscarf to work, she received a text message from her boss telling her not to come to work ‘‘that way’’.

Mrs El Hassan replied she was forced to resign.

‘‘She didn’t let me come into work, so I didn’t, and I haven’t been back there since,’’ Mrs El Hassan said.

‘‘I have been under so much stress, I can’t hold my emotions.’’

Master Tax and Finance’s Ms Donnelly said: ‘‘It’s been a matter of a workplace-performance issue.’’

When asked about the allegations filed with the commission and the company’s workplace policies, Ms Donnelly said she could not yet respond to questions.

She said the company would respond to Fair Work Australia by November 28.

‘‘They did everything in their power to ensure that the applicant was at ease at the workplace,’’ Ms Donnelly said.

‘‘My client’s instructions are that they were discussing [the headscarf], because it’s a corporate image and because they get 10,000 clients.

‘‘They had done everything else, stopped [radio] music, given time off for religious observances, gave her a prayer room.

‘‘They in no way wanted to ever offend the applicant. 

‘‘They held her in high esteem. However, there were workplace issues.’’

Mrs El Hassan said she was trying to keep as calm as possible because she was eight weeks’ pregnant.

Even so, the decision to wear the hijab was one she did not regret.

‘‘I am extremely happy and proud – it’s a sense of piety,’’ she said.

‘‘People have a misconception of scarved women. I freely put my scarf on...to me this is freedom.

‘‘I want this to be history. I know I’m young and not the best...but there might be others like me.

‘‘Australia is all about equality.’’

Mrs El Hassan’s lawyer, Michelle Walsh, said her client was still owed wages for the last two weeks of work, her notice payment and accrued annual leave.

‘‘And we say on the basis that she was employed for more than five years, [she is entitled to] pro-rata long-service leave,’’ Ms Walsh said.

Mariam El Hassan says she felt forced to resign from her Warrawong job. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Mariam El Hassan says she felt forced to resign from her Warrawong job. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER