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11 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:01am

Muslim women face triple discrimination at work – and taking off a hijab won’t help

Muslim women face discrimination not only in the workplace, but in education and within their own communities. 

By Nazmin Akthar-Sheikh

The findings of the Women and Equalities committee confirms what we at the Muslim Women’s Network UK  have known for a long time: that Muslim women face triple discrimination when trying to enter into the workplace. They face a penalty for being a woman, for being from an ethnic minority background, and a third penalty for being Muslim.

Internalised stereotypes come into play when a Muslim woman comes in front of an interviewing panel, more so if she is wearing a headscarf. She may be single but her career aspirations once she is married and starts a family may be questioned. She may have obtained a degree after living three years of living away from home but her availability in being able to travel across the country and stay overnight for meetings in different cities will be questioned. She may challenged on how social she is. Just exactly how well did she get on with her colleagues in her last job? Did she meet up with them outside of work? 

It may be subconscious, and the interviewer may not realise themselves what they are saying, but these questions are borne from misconceptions about Muslim women. They draw on the idea of Muslim women being weak, submissive and unable to make decisions themselves. At the same time there are fears that Muslim women may not fit into the employer’s work environment and may be problematic. What if she doesn’t turn up because her family need her to stay at home? What if she tries to get the Christmas party cancelled? 

It’s not all happy news for those Muslim women who manage to obtain employment either. Many report having to work twice as long and as hard as other colleagues to prove their capabilities, being unjustifiably passed over for promotion and not being provided with the training and support that could help their development as professionals.  

One response has been to suggest Muslim women take off the hijab to avoid discrimination. Aside from ignoring the fact that there are many non-hijab wearing Muslim women in the UK who also face discrimination and Islamophobia (your name sounding too Muslim being one trigger), we ask the question: If the hijab does not impact on their abilities to carry out their work and is not a health and safety issue, why should Muslim women stop exercising their (legal) choice to wear a headscarf to please the prejudiced? 

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We are fully aware that the workplace is not the only place that Muslim women face discrimination. They may face issues in schools, universities, in their local mosque and by their own communities. We are aware of cases of young Muslim girls being discouraged from studying further and being pushed towards marriage instead. We were at the Women and  Equalities committee hearing in April to contribute evidence towards the report. We were saddened to hear the example of a female Muslim student who had turned down a mentorship because she was fearful of what community members may say if she was seen with a man. She may be a minority example but it highlights a serious problem – no one should compromise with their career and life aspirations because of such patriarchal and un-Islamic attitudes. Such cultural issues must be challenged.

What we do ask for is for all these issues of discrimination to be tackled together, and we ask for everyone to play their part. That includes employers. We need investment into promoting awareness and understanding of equality and diversity in the workplace. We need all employees (Muslim or otherwise) to be given the training and encouragement needed to progress further, and we need to reward them when they do. We also need further research into the issues of discrimination and Islamophobia so that we have sufficient information to tackle the issue, and we need a collaborative approach between key organisations such as schools, universities and employers.

Young Muslim girls should be provided with mentoring opportunities from an early age. Not only will this assist them in their career aspirations, but it will also allow them to develop the critical thinking skills needed to challenge any patriarchal attitudes still lurking around them.

Nazmin Akthar-Sheikh is vice-chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK. 

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