How I Nearly Lost My Business After Refusing to Hire a Muslim Hair Stylist Who Wouldn’t Show Her Hair
Natasha Courtenay-Smith, Daily Mail (London), June 18, 2008
For Sarah Desrosiers, meeting Bushra Noah was not a moment in her life that she would describe as especially memorable.
Not only was it brief—lasting little more than ten minutes—but it was rapidly obvious to Sarah that Bushra was not the person for the junior stylist position she was trying to fill at her hairdressing salon.
Sarah’s reasoning? Quite simply that Bushra, a Muslim who wears a headscarf for religions reasons, had made it clear she would not be removing the garment even while at work.
Sarah Desrosiers says she did nothing wrong by not employing Bushra Noah and would have done the same if an employee refused to remove a baseball cap
Sarah felt that a job requirement of any hairdresser was that the stylist’s hair would provide clients with a showcase of different looks. Especially one working in a salon such as hers, which specialises in alternative cuts and colours.
Yet the ten minutes during which Sarah’s world collided with Bushra’s has resulted in an extraordinary employment battle, in which she was accused of ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ discrimination.
For a year, Sarah has been facing financial ruin, due to a compensation claim for £34,000 brought by Bushra, 19, who has maintained she is due that figure after being turned down for a job at the Wedge salon in London’s King’s Cross.
In the event, the tribunal ruled this week that while Bushra’s claim of direct discrimination failed, her claim for indirect discrimination had succeeded.
Sarah has therefore been ordered to pay £4,000 compensation by way of ‘injury to feelings’.
Although this is a smaller sum than she’d feared she might have to hand over, Sarah, 32, is still outraged.
‘I am a small business and the bottom line is that this is not a woman who worked for me,’ says Sarah.
Bushra Noah says that Sarah Desrosiers ‘hurt her feelings’ by not employing her after a ten minute interview
‘She is simply someone I met for a job interview, who, for a host of reasons, was not right for the job. I cannot see how she deserves £4,000.
‘As for the notion that I’ve injured her feelings—well, people’s feelings get injured every day. I dread to think the sorts of things that people will try to claim injured feelings for now that this precedent has been set.’
In its ruling, the tribunal said it was ‘satisfied that Bushra was not treated less favourably than Sarah would have treated any woman who, whether Muslim or not, wears a hair covering at all times when at work’.
Accordingly, the claim of direct discrimination failed.
But with regard to the issue of indirect discrimination, they found that Sarah had pursued a ‘legitimate aim—that aim being to promote the image of the business’.
However, the burden of proof was on Sarah to prove that her means of achieving that legitimate aim was proportionate.
She was not able to prove her contention that employing someone with a headscarf would have the negative impact on her business’s stylistic integrity that she feared.
Since the judgment, Bushra, who is of Syrian descent and has worn a headscarf since she was 13, has, so far at least, chosen not to comment.
But, speaking last year, she admitted she had attended 25 interviews for hairdressing jobs without success.
But Sarah, she told the tribunal, had upset her the most.
She said: ‘I felt so down and got so depressed. I thought: “If I am not going to defend myself, who is?” Hairdressing has been what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was at high school.
‘This has ruined my ambitions. Wearing a headscarf is essential to my beliefs.’
Bushra had a job in a salon in London, where her tasks included cutting hair, highlighting, tinting and perming, before she left to get married in Syria in 2006.
But on her return to Britain, she was unable to find work.
She has given up her ambitions to become a hairdresser and is studying travel and tourism at Hammersmith and West London College while working part-time in a shop.
At the tribunal, Bushra was asked if Sarah had made derogatory remarks about her headscarf.
She replied: ‘She did not. She just asked me if I wore it all the time, or whether I’d take it off.’
Although Bushra is believed to have been acting alone, in the past similar cases have been championed by Muslim traditionalist groups.
In 2006, the Law Lords overturned a court ruling that teenager Shabina Begum’s human rights were violated when she was banned from wearing full Islamic dress at school.
Sarah in her salon—Wedge—located in north London says that the discrimination case against her almost ruined her business
The extremist Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir later admitted that it had ‘advised her’.
Meanwhile, Sarah Desrosiers is wondering how to raise the £4,000 she has been ordered to pay Bushra. She has spent her savings on her legal battle and simply has no money left.
‘I am a one-woman band, and am already in debt due to the set-up costs of opening my own salon,’ says Sarah. ‘I dread to think how many haircuts I’m going to have to do to earn the £4,000 I have to pay Bushra. This has, without doubt, been the worst year of my life.’
Such a messy set of circumstances, let alone the strain of having the case bought against her, was certainly not what Sarah expected when she started out on her career aged 17.
From the outset, she had grand ambitions, telling her mother that she would one day have her own salon.
‘Even back then, I realised how important your own hair is to the job,’ says Sarah. ‘I went into hairdressing a rather plain brunette, but within a few weeks I had a bright red crop.
‘I wanted to provide clients with inspiration through my own hair. Whether they’re in a conventional High Street salon, or something slightly different like my salon, customers expect to see the stylists with hair that is on trend, striking and can give them ideas for their own look.’
In 1997, Sarah got a job at a salon on London’s Portobello Road, where she remained for almost a decade.
In March 2006, feeling ready to spread her wings, she wrote a business plan, secured a loan and invested £5,000 of her savings into the lease on a small salon on Caledonian Road.
She named it Wedge, and planned to specialise in ‘urban and edgy’ cuts, rather like the cerise colour she often dyes her own hair.
‘I’d never felt as proud as I did on the day I picked up the keys to my salon,’ says Sarah.
‘I was prepared to put my heart and soul into my business in order to make ends meet, and for the first few months, I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, all by myself.
‘I barely saw daylight, but I didn’t mind because I was fulfilling my ambition.
‘Of course, there were a few nerve-racking moments, such as when another salon opened a few doors away. But that is part of owning your own business, and I felt proud of all I was achieving.’
By March 2007, the business was doing so well that Sarah needed to take on another stylist. To minimise her overheads, she decided the best way to do this would be by renting out a chair in her salon to an experienced stylist—who would take a share of her profits—and employ a junior to work for both of them.
Sarah received dozens of applications for the junior position, one of which was from Bushra Noah.
‘Her CV didn’t stand out because I was looking for someone who lived locally—something I’d specified in the advert so that I could call them in as and when required—and she lived several miles away in Acton,’ says Sarah.
‘One day she rang up to see if I’d got her CV and begged me for an interview. I told her I had concerns about where she lived, but she sounded so desperate that I agreed she could come in for a chat.’
A few days later, Bushra duly arrived at the salon.
‘I have to say I didn’t take to her,’ says Sarah. ‘She waltzed into the salon and hung up her coat as though she already had the job.
‘Naturally, I noticed her headscarf. But I presumed that, as she’s a hairdresser, she’d take if off when she was working. In 16 years, I’ve never known any stylist cover their hair with a headscarf. And this particular headscarf came all the way down to her eyebrows and covered her entire hairline.’
Sarah broached the subject with Bushra, who said she would not be removing the garment.
After ten minutes, with the interview complete, Sarah said she would come back to Bushra about the vacancy.
‘As she left, Bushra turned to me and said that she’d been turned down for jobs before,’ says Sarah. ‘And I admit I thought: “Well, what do you expect?”
‘It was not a religious matter. If she’d come in wearing a baseball cap and saying she wouldn’t take it off for work, then she wouldn’t have got the job either.’
One morning in the second week of June 2007, an innocuous white envelope landed on Sarah’s doormat. It contained a letter saying that she was being sued for £15,000 for indirect and direct discrimination by Bushra Noah.
This, the letter stated, related to compensation for injury to her feelings and lost earnings. Later, that figure was increased to £34,000.
‘I read it and re-read it and stood there dumbfounded,’ says Sarah.
‘I remembered Bushra, and I guessed straight away that the claim related to the headscarf. In my mind I was saying “But I wasn’t discriminating, it’s just a part of the job”, over and over again.
‘I dialled the number at the top of the letter and was told I needed to get a solicitor, but that because I worked, I wasn’t entitled to Legal Aid. I thought: “This is it—my business is over.” I was devastated.’
Using her savings of £2,000, Sarah employed a lawyer who helped her draft a statement about her meeting with Bushra.
But with his fees at £280 an hour, she knew she couldn’t afford to fight a satisfactory legal battle. Her parents—her mother is a nurse, and her father is retired—weren’t in a position to help her out financially either.
‘I was at my wits’ end, and I had no idea how I was going to pay for my legal fees,’ says Sarah.
‘I was virtually being accused of racism, which is ridiculous. I’ve cut the hair of people from all walks of life, including transsexuals, and you can hardly run an alternative salon if you are prejudiced.’
Help came when a friend tipped off a reporter about what was happening, and Sarah’s case gained publicity, first locally, then nationally. Since then, she has received support from hundreds of people in the hairdressing industry, including black celebrity stylist Errol Douglas.
Still, the wave of support did little to ease the stress as she fought to clear her name.
‘For months, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I felt as though my whole life was on hold. All I could see was that I’d be forced into bankruptcy and lose my business.’
In the course of preparing for her trial, Sarah estimates she has lost £40,000 of her salon’s annual income.
She also faced a further blow when it emerged that Bushra had increased the figure to £34,000 to compensate for hate mail she had received following Press coverage of the trial.
In March, Sarah faced a three- day employment tribunal, and endured four hours of cross-examination.
‘I managed to defend myself and not cry, but it was incredibly difficult,’ she says. ‘I’d even had to ask my accountant, who is a Muslim, and another Muslim friend to write letters confirming that I am not racist. The whole experience was so humiliating and, most importantly, unnecessary.’
‘I kept thinking: “I’ve worked hard all my life—how can it be possible that someone can come into my shop, talk to me for ten minutes and then sue me for £34,000? How is that possibly fair?”.’
As she reels from the verdict, Sarah is contemplating her next move. While part of her is tempted to pay, simply to close the door on this unpleasant episode, she also feels she should fight to clear her name.
Her lawyers are advising her on whether or not she can appeal.
‘Because of this there will be a black mark against my name for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘I feel I have not done anything wrong, and this is a terrible price to pay for a meeting that lasted ten minutes.’
[Editor’s Note: AR News posted the first account of this incident here]