Double Discrimination: Islamophobia in the Workplace

It didn’t take long to decide what I would write about in my first article for She Works. As a hijabi-wearing, British-Pakistani Muslim woman living in the UK – that’s a heck of a demographic – my identity is central to my career (and everything else).

During my studies, I have strived to gain as many work experiences and internships as possible, and in doing so, have opened myself up to working with a variety of people - and people with a variety of opinions. Although I have received comments, stares, and the odd racist chant from strangers on the street, I must admit that I did not expect to receive similar treatment in the workplace.

Recently, I realised that my experiences are not uncommon; rather, the Islamophobic abuse I have experienced as an individual is the outcome of a wider system that disenfranchises Muslim women and women of colour.

Looking back, the most aggravating incident I experienced at work was in the summer of my first year of university when I decided to volunteer for a local community centre.

On my first day, one of my colleagues began to unabashedly share her uninvited opinions on Muslim women and our religious garb to the entire room. In her view, Muslim girls are lazy and overly dependent on their parents or husbands, an opinion she based on knowing one Muslim woman in her late teens who chose to live at home with her parents and depended financially on them. She also sprouted stereotypes on how scary Muslim women look as we “only wear black” and cover our faces – another opinion that ignores the diverse ways in which (some) Muslim women practice modesty.

As I was new to the team and much younger than my colleagues, I did not feel comfortable standing up for myself, and no one else confronted her on her problematic views and unprofessional behaviour. After going home and saying all the things I wish I had said to her in front of the bathroom mirror, I forgot about the incident and continued to volunteer at the community centre. There were no repercussions for my colleague’s racist and Islamophobic behaviour, which is particularly worrisome considering the nature of her work.

The discrimination that Muslim women experience in the labour market may not always be as overt as this.

Last month, research by the government’s social mobility watchdog uncovered evidence of Muslims being held back in their careers by racism, Islamophobia and discrimination, as Muslim adults are much less likely to be in full-time work, in spite of our high results in education.

For example, the Guardian revealed that only 6% of Muslims attain professional jobs, in contrast with 10% of the overall operation of England and Wales. Reporting on the government’s study, the Guardian also stated that 19.8% of Muslim aged 16-to-74 are in full-time employment, in contrast with 34.9% of the overall population.

Furthermore, the research found that Muslim women are being discouraged in our communities from gaining employment in favour of pursuing marriage and motherhood. It just goes to show that Muslim women face hurdles to gaining employment opportunities from within our communities and the labour market.

For too long, Muslim women have been blamed for being at a disadvantage.

In 2016, Louise Casey published a review into opportunity and integration, which claimed that discrimination does not inhibit us from achieving success – instead, it is our failure to integrate that makes us unemployable. Academics have shed light on a number of barriers that Muslims face to achieving success – not one of them being a failure to integrate. For example, employers are reluctant to invite candidates with minority ethnic-sounding names to interview, and young Muslims often fear being bullied and harassed at work and feel compelled to work ten times harder than their white colleagues.

Muslim women who wear the hijab particularly face discrimination in the workplace. Research conducted by the Open Society revealed that recruiters often questioned how well Muslim women who wear the hijab would “fit in”, and in some interviews, employers also expressed concern as to the image that such Muslim women would present to customers.

Hijab-wearing Muslim women are aware of this type of discrimination, as it is a common occurrence amongst us. For example, my mum was successful during the first round of interviews for a make-up counter job and was told that she was the potential employer’s first choice, but she was subsequently rejected for the role after turning up to the second interview wearing a hijab.

These days I do not question whether I am qualified for the jobs I’m applying for, but I doubt my chances of being invited to interviews based on my name, the colour of my skin, my faith, and especially my hijab.

This type of discrimination is compounded/fed by some media outlets that propagate stereotypes (such as by publishing pictures of Muslim women wearing the hijab in a Saudi-fashion exclusively), as well as by politicians who simultaneously accuse Muslim women for failing to integrate whilst viewing us as victims to communities that are culturally regressive and patriarchal.

In order to combat this discrimination, the government must stop blaming Muslim women for our underrepresentation in the labour market. Employers also have a duty to reform their recruitment practices and behaviours, as they are implicitly creating an environment that Muslim women don’t seem to fit in. This immediately places us at a disadvantage because our cultural and religious values may not align with such an environment.

That is why I invite employers to ask themselves what sort of corporate culture they are cultivating and whether it is supportive of Muslim women.


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