Image: Obama audience members
Paul Sancya  /  AP file
Audience members behind the podium cheer prior to the appearance of Sen. Barack Obama at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on June 16. A young Muslim woman Hebba Aref said Wednesday that she was excluded by Obama campaign workers because, Aref said, they were wearing traditional Muslim head scarves.
updated 6/18/2008 1:51:12 PM ET 2008-06-18T17:51:12

A young Muslim woman said she and another woman were refused seats directly behind Barack Obama — and in front of TV cameras — at a Detroit rally because they wear head scarfs.

Hebba Aref said Wednesday that she and Shimaa Abdelfadeel were among 20,000 supporters who gathered to see Obama on Monday at the Joe Louis Arena when the groups they were with were separately invited by Obama campaign volunteers to sit behind the podium. But Aref said the volunteers told members of both parties in separate discussions that women wearing hijabs, the traditional Muslim head scarves, weren't included in the invitation and couldn't sit behind the podium.

Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer, said a member of her group was told by a volunteer that she could not invite Aref because of "a sensitive political climate."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement saying such actions are "not the policy of the campaign."

"It is offensive and counter to Obama's commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run. We sincerely apologize for this behavior," the statement read.

Aref said she replied by thanking Burton, but requested Obama apologize directly to her and Abdelfadeel, as well as invitations to sit behind him at a future campaign event. Obama spokeswoman Amy Brundage said the campaign has apologized.

"He needs to take the matter seriously and send a strong message against any kind of discrimination," Aref said.

A message was left Wednesday morning by The Associated Press for Abdelfadeel.

Presidential campaigns routinely invite audience members they believe will enhance the image their candidate wants to convey on TV to stand behind the candidate at rallies.

Aref, who was born in the United States to Egyptian immigrants, said she had defended Obama during the primaries against a constant drumbeat of rumors that he was Muslim. Obama is a Christian.

Obama also has been careful in denouncing the links, noting that some rumors about him also have been insulting to Muslims.

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"I don't want to be called something I'm not, but I felt like ... everyone was treating this accusation of being Muslim as though it were some sort of crime or sin," Aref said.

She was grateful that the group she was with at the rally, which included her brother, Sharif, as well as non-Muslim colleagues of his, declined the invitation to take seats behind Obama after she was refused.

Still, she said, it was difficult to hear a Obama's message of unity among races.

"As he's saying it, I'm thinking, 'Well, wait a minute, I was obviously ... profiled and discriminated against an hour ago.'"

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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