A Muslim mother says she was denied entry into the Pepsi Center in Colorado because a security guard objected to her hijab.
On Nov. 5, Gazella Bensreiti, 36, arrived at the arena to watch her 9-year-old daughter sing the National Anthem with her school choir, ahead of the Denver Nuggets-Miami Heat basketball game. The single mother-of-three escorted her daughter to the box office and after the girl walked through a metal detector, Bensreiti began unloading her phone, car keys, and AirPods to follow suit.
But a woman standing 10 feet away waved her arm in Bensreiti’s direction. “She said, ‘You can’t come in here with that thing on your head,’” Bensreiti tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
The mom explained that her hijab was for religious purposes, but the woman allegedly said, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You have to take it off.” Bensreiti says the woman stated it was a “policy” to remove the headwear, to which a co-worker agreed.
“I didn’t know what they were searching for, but I have nothing to hide, so I offered to remove my covering so they could search me in private,” Bensreiti tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that she had participated in a respectful search at an airport traveling from Dubai to Frankfort while wearing an abaya, a traditional head-to-toe garment. However, she says, the Pepsi Center employee wouldn’t allow it.
“I have no problem removing my hijab and showing them every strand of hair,” Bensreiti, who was born and raised in Colorado, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The mom says when one employee disappeared inside an office, a fellow parent pointed out that a group of men had been allowed inside wearing baseball hats. When Bensreiti questioned it, she was allegedly told that the men had briefly removed their hats for inspection.
“My daughter was crying and pulling on my arm, worried I wouldn’t be allowed inside,” Bensreiti tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I said, ‘I will watch you perform whether they like it or not.’”
Bensreiti says when she asked for the employees’ names, one obliged but the other did not, instead allegedly telling her, “I will set you straight.”
She says that a supervisor intervened and Bensreiti was eventually allowed inside the arena, but she was left shaken and humiliated. After the girl’s performance, the family was too upset to stay for the basketball game.
Bensreiti wants to prevent anyone, regardless of their religious clothing, from the same experience. “The arena should change its policy to make sure all patrons are welcome,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “not harassed based on their religious symbols.”
Yahoo Lifestyle could not reach a spokesperson at Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns Pepsi Center. However, NBC News reported that, according to a statement from a Pepsi Center spokesperson, the employee “didn’t recognize Ms. Bensreiti was wearing a hijab,” and the mom was eventually allowed inside after a supervisor got involved.
According to NBC News, the statement read, “Pepsi Center prides itself on creating a safe and inclusive environment for all patrons regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, disability and sexual orientation.” The statement continued: “We have reached out to Ms. Bensreiti and look forward to engaging in honest discourse that leads to greater awareness and an opportunity to further celebrate the diversity that makes Denver such a special place. While the matter is still under review, we are taking steps to modify our screening process and provide additional education for our staff.”
On Wednesday, a local chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), held a press conference at the Colorado Muslim Society in Denver. A press release stated its purpose was to “call on Pepsi Center officials to investigate the incident and to take appropriate actions, including a change in its policy regarding religious attire of event attendees.”
In the press conference, published by NBC News, Bensreiti said, “Wearing the hijab to me is a part of my religion. It is hard enough to wear hijab and to live your life as a Muslim woman because we’re constantly facing obstacles where we’re told not to wear it or to take it off…”
Bensreiti tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “I forgive the employee, but I think [her actions] came from a place of ignorance, so I implore her to get educated and learn about people from different walks of life.”
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