Muslim woman says Denver arena worker told her to remove hijab, refused to let her enter

Gazella Bensreiti said the Pepsi Center employee told her to "take that thing off" and said she could not come in until she removed her hijab.

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By Minyvonne Burke and Suzanne Ciechalski

A Muslim woman said she was discriminated against after a Pepsi Center employee demanded she remove her hijab before entering the Denver arena.

Gazella Bensreiti, 36, a mother of three girls, said in a Facebook post that she was at the arena Nov. 5, where her 8-year-old daughter was going to sing the national anthem with her school choir.

When Bensreiti went to pick up her ticket, she said a female employee told her "take that thing off," referring to Bensreiti's hijab, a headwrap some Muslim women wear in public.

Bensreiti said she refused to take it off, telling the worker that she wears it because of her religion.

"She responded, 'I don’t care, you can’t come in with it on.' I then asked if she’d be willing to take me to the side so that I could remove it and show her my entire head in private. Again, she told me no," Bensreiti wrote, adding that a group of white men standing in front of her still had baseball caps on.

The Pepsi Center in Denver.Justin Edmonds / Getty Images file

Bensreiti said in a phone interview after the incident that she asked to see the arena's written policy on religious head coverings but never got it.

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As the situation was unfolding, her 8-year-old daughter who was with her became visibly upset and worried that her mother wouldn't be able to see her perform.

"I reassured my daughter, 'No, I'm not leaving until I see you perform,'" she said.

Bensreiti said the employee eventually went into an office and when she came back out, told Bensreiti to go ahead "without making eye contact or even acknowledging me as a human being, but ushered me like an animal."

Bensreiti also accused the worker of yelling at her in front of other people. She said she was eventually able to get her ticket but said the incident left her in tears.

Gazella Bensreiti, center, with her daughters, from left, Mariam, 10, Noor, 8, and Suadd, 13.Gazella Bensreiti

"I have never experienced this type of trauma in my entire life. I know my rights as an American citizen. Not only did she traumatize me and my daughter, she infringed upon my civil rights. I have never felt so embarrassed and broken before," the post read

The Colorado chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference Wednesday afternoon with Bensreiti, to call on Pepsi Center officials to investigate the incident and change its policy regarding religious attire of people attending events.

Bensreiti got emotional as she talked about the incident.

“Wearing the hijab to me is part of my religion. It’s hard enough to wear your hijab and live your life as a Muslim woman," she said.

A spokesperson for the Pepsi Center called the incident a "misunderstanding" and said the employee "didn't recognize Ms. Bensreiti was wearing a hijab." Bensreiti was allowed to enter the venue after a supervisor intervened, the spokesperson said in a statement.

"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 read.

It 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.”

Bensreiti said that after seeing her daughter perform, they left the arena instead of staying for the game. In the car, her daughter broke down crying.

"I think that her actions came from a place of ignorance," Bensreiti said about the woman. " I do just truly hope that she also learns form this experience and anyone else watching to learn about other people, learn about other religions, learn about other cultures.

"Don’t attack someone...based on what you see," she added. "Encourage people who see injustice happening to speak up and make their voices heard."