Syeeda Hussaini has suffered from neck pain the past few years, to the extent that it’s difficult for her to drive and get a good night’s rest.
So on a recent weekend, she, her husband, and their three kids loaded up the car and drove less than a mile to Mattress Firm. Her husband, Mohammad, encouraged her to lie on different beds to see which one felt best.
She said the store manager approached, but oddly didn’t want to help. He told the family that he wouldn’t sell them a mattress for security reasons, she said.
Hussaini, 27, who is Muslim, covers all but her hands, feet and eyes in public to show respect for femininity and her religion. She said the manager told her she needed to show her face for service. Mohammad, a pathology resident at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, tried to explain that his wife dressed this way to be modest, much like Catholic nuns. But the manager stomped off, they say.
Hussaini wrote a letter to a regional representative of the company after the March 12 visit to the store. An official at Mattress Firm headquarters in Houston said the company “has a zero tolerance policy on racial and religious profiling.” Spokeswoman Sunni Goodman would not comment specifically about the manager, but she confirmed the encounter happened.
“As soon as we were informed of the incident, we took appropriate action to address the situation,” she said.
The manager no longer works for Mattress Firm.
Other retailers at the shopping plaza on Highlands Boulevard Drive in Manchester said it’s not unusual to see women fully covered. The Dar Ul Islam mosque, the most established of about a dozen mosques in the St. Louis area, is just a few miles away.
There have been other recent complaints in the region. Advocates said emotions are running high since a Muslim community center was proposed near ground zero in New York and since a Florida pastor burned a Quran, the holy book of the Islamic faith.
“It’s harder to be a Muslim in the United States now than at any time since 9/11,” said James Hacking III, a lawyer and head of the Muslim task force of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
“With more Muslims being a part of society, there is going to be more interaction,” he said. “A small minority of people don’t like having Muslims around. For the most part, Muslims live side-by-side with their neighbors without incident.”
Sometimes complaints are settled easily, he said. For instance, a misunderstanding in March involving an employee at a high-end hotel in Clayton was told to shave off his beard. The company made an exception to its policy on facial hair after it was explained that the employee wore a beard for religious reasons.
Other incidents seem more serious. On Monday, two of Hacking’s Muslim clients filed a lawsuit in St. Louis County against Bankers Life and Casualty Co., and Daniel Colvis, a branch manager in Chesterfield, alleging violations of the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Ali Badran and Warrad Warrad of Florissant, who were sales agents at the life and health insurance company, claim that Colvis “repeatedly made disparaging and defamatory comments” about their race, religion and ethnicity in front of other employees. Colvis is accused of making hostile comments to the plaintiffs including, “please don’t blow yourselves up.” He allegedly told Warrad to shave off a neatly trimmed beard and asked both of them if they were related to Osama Bin Laden and if they danced on 9/11.
Colvis fired Badran in 2009 and Warrad in 2010, even though they had stronger sales histories than non-Muslim agents, according to the lawsuit.
At his office Friday, Colvis declined to comment on the lawsuit through an assistant and forwarded inquiries to the company’s corporate headquarters in Chicago.
“We believe the lawsuit is without merit, and we intend to defend it vigorously,” said spokeswoman Barbara Ciesemier, declining to respond to follow-up questions.
Last Sunday, a threatening note and three burned Qurans were reported at a mosque in Springfield, Mo., that was vandalized in January.
“A lot of this is generated by Internet hate,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council On American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Asked about the Springfield incident and others, Pamela Geller, executive director of Stop The Islamization of America, wrote in an email: “Many recent incidents of this nature have been perpetrated by Muslims.” She added, “I condemn all acts of stupidity, but let’s get the facts first.”
Clothing in particular has been in the spotlight this week. A new law in France took effect Monday forbidding women to cover their faces in public. Women reportedly risk a $200 fine; males face a $43,000 fine if they force women to wear a veil.
Hussaini, of Manchester, said she wants to be covered and is thankful to have the opportunity to do so in the United States. She dons an abaya, or full-length outer gown; hijab, or head scarf; and niqab, or veil.
She admits that kids can be startled by her appearance in public. “Mommy, there’s a monster,” is one comment she has heard. But she said some mothers ask Hussaini to explain to their children why she wears what she does.
She eventually found a mattress, but not an apology.
Goodman, the company spokeswoman, said a regional salesman followed up with the Hussaini family a couple weeks ago to apologize and invite them back to the store. Syeeda Hussaini said that has not occurred.
Shaken after the visit to Mattress Firm in March, the Hussaini family went to another company in Brentwood, then another in Manchester.
“They let me try out all the beds and they were fine,” she said.