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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. 

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? 

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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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge