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Muslim mom wearing hijab says Pepsi Center employee told her to remove ‘that thing on your head’

Gazella Bensreiti of Colorado says she was initially denied entry to the Pepsi Center due to her hijab. (Photo courtesy of Gazella Bensreiti)

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.”

A spokesperson from Argus Event Staffing, LLC, tells Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement,

“Argus is aware of a guest interaction with an Argus employee which took place on November 5th at the Pepsi Center. Argus would like to clarify the facts pertaining to the interaction. Our employee is a 71 year old African American woman who has worked for Argus for 14 years and until this incident never once had been accused of discrimination, profiling or harassment.”

The statement read, “The patron repeatedly pointed to our employee and another Argus colleague while calling them racists. Argus stands behind our employee. Our employee was performing her job duties consistent with Pepsi Center and league security screening protocols. She did not recognize the headwear worn by the patron as a Hijab. Once notified by the patron of her religious headwear, our employee immediately sought guidance from her supervisor who allowed the patron to enter without removal of her Hijab. Our security video verifies that this interaction took a total of one minute and 11 seconds. There has been significant misinformation communicated about this event.  To be clear, at no point was our employee motivated by religious or racial bias. She too has been traumatized by the interaction and has a 14 year employment history with Argus working multiple venues without a single patron complaint.  It goes without saying, that Argus is committed to treating all guests equally regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation.”

The spokesperson adds, “Argus has reached out to the guest to discuss the matter in greater detail, but she has not responded to our request. Argus realizes there are always areas to improve or enhance the guest experience and we plan on working to identify if changes are necessary to improve guest interaction.”

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.”

UPDATE, November 14: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Argus Event Staffing.

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