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Being a hijab-wearing, feminist Muslim woman at a corporate workplace is difficult and comes with its own share of issues and discriminations. The author explores.
“Well, the only issue here is that you wear that cloth around your head. If you consider removing it, maybe you’ll get this job,” said the interviewer after various rounds of interview since the morning.
Before I joined my current workplace, I attended many interviews. As a fresher, I was prepared to be completely flexible about the work culture and very enthusiastic to join the corporate. I am an engineer but I wanted to be a writer; so I started looking for jobs that gave me an opportunity to improve my English and writing skills.
But this interview left me feeling uncomfortable and awkward. I am a feminist Muslim woman who wears hijab (headscarf). For me, hijab isn’t just a piece of cloth that I use to cover my head neither is it merely a symbol of modesty and dignity. It is the way of life that I’ve chosen for myself and no one has the right to tell me otherwise.
While I didn’t pursue the offer they gave me, I had to look for work in other places. Each time I attended an interview, after this incident, I’d be worried if the same would happen there.
At some places, I asked them if they were comfortable with me wearing hijab at work, before they could say anything. And at others, they were fine but some they weren’t.
I kept wondering how a piece of clothing that a woman chooses to wear was causing problems to people. After so much thought and experiences I understood that I made the right choice by not giving up hijab for a job.
But I also realised that I was fortunate enough to make that decision because I was not in need of that job desperately, I mean, my father took care of my finances back then so I had the privilege to make that decision.
But what about women who didn’t have the privilege? They’d have to compromise on their identity and choices because someone thinks that their dressing is inappropriate for a workplace. With all this going on in my brain, I continued looking for a suitable job/workplace that didn’t have problems with my hijab.
Finally, I found a job where people had no issues with my hijab. They would even make space for my daily prayers. I was happy with the culture there.
But I realised that wearing a hijab is sometimes taken as an open invitation for casual conversation about my background and religion.
While some conversations are interesting and give me the opportunity to talk about my faith and express myself to my colleagues, some conversations just resulted in unwanted micro-aggression.
My manager, who is also a close friend, has always understood the importance of giving me space to have my beliefs and practice them unapologetically. Despite all this comfort at workplace, there’s another unaddressed underlying issue — being a feminist woman at the workplace!
I initially observed, that many startups have a very few people and even lesser women. Despite the strong business case for gender diversity, it has become a common issue at workplaces globally, as well as in India, with fewer women reaching the top of the corporate ladder.
According to a new study by researchers in the University at Buffalo School of Management, gender gap is caused due to societal pressures that contribute to gender differences in personality traits.
For example, men tend to be more assertive and dominant, whereas women tend to be more communal, cooperative and nurturing. As a result, men are more likely to participate and voice their opinions during group discussions, and be perceived by others as leader-like.
“We found showing sensitivity and concern for others — stereotypically feminine traits — made someone less likely to be seen as a leader,” Grijalva says. “However, it’s those same characteristics that make leaders effective.
The study says that because of this unconscious bias against communal traits, organisations may unintentionally select the wrong people for leadership roles. Hence, these days we tend to have leaders who are loud and confident but lack the ability to support their team members and nurture their team members.
Climbing the corporate ladder and improving career is trickier for female professionals. They are required to work harder than their male peers in to earn recognition or appreciation. Many organisations have a general feeling that men advance faster and have the capability to learn and implement more effectively than women. Due this, the women in every organisation have to work harder to prove that they are worth it.
Another major thing that lacks in today’s corporate is, women in managerial roles.
According to a Gallup poll in 2013, 41% of female managers are engaged at work, compared with 35% of male managers. In fact, female managers of every working-age generation are more engaged than their male counterparts, regardless of whether they have children in their household. Despite these statistics, we do not see many women in managerial roles around us even if they possess skills and talents to be leaders.
Representations are really important! This is the challenge that most women like me face. Men have many male professionals around them in successful managerial roles to look upon. On the other hand, as a woman, I’d say that I have very few or none.
I do not know any hijabi, feminist, muslim woman who is successful as a manager. Minorities lack representation in media as well as in real life. In media we often see the dominant race in spotlight while the minorities are mere accessories who do cannot even stand up for themselves. This toxic/ unreal portrayal of minority women has affected the way they are treated in real life too.
Women at workplace face many more issues at workplace other than just gender bias and pay inequality. They have to face many unaddressed issues like inappropriate humour, pregnancy discrimination, work-life imbalance, lack of support from managers, harassment etc.,
Female professionals get judged more than their male colleagues about every choice they make and even for their appearance. Another very uncomfortable thing that women have to put up with these days is, the locker-room talk, where men make aggressively misogynistic statements in the company of other men.
According to 2018 Women in the Workplace report recently released by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, here are the stats for the above issues faced by women:
It is difficult to be feminist around people who think that feminism is your new hobby and is completely irrelevant to your job. Sexism is very common at workplace these days. It is normalised to such an extent that, calling it out makes you the spoil-sport. Or worse, you’ll be called out for being the odd one out.
But does that change the fact that sexism is wrong on all levels? No.
While many assume that Feminism and Islam are mutually exclusive, and that Muslim women are oppressed by their religion, there are studies that say otherwise. A comparative study of American Religious Christian and Muslim Women found that more Muslim women report that Islam supports feminism. And that its teachings are capable of giving women an equal footing in society to men, and that it does not relegate women to the private sphere.
In fact, Muslim women look upon to Khadijah, a dynamic business woman who is referred by muslims as ‘The mother of believers’, who was Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) most beloved wife. She had hired him to work for her where she managed a successful merchant trade business. Ultimately, she married Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). She was strong and dynamic, and a successful business woman who stood alongside the Prophet in an unwelcoming world.
There are many great women throughout the history who were amazing leaders and possessed remarkable talents and yet, today, we face so many obstacles to openly have opinions as women at workplaces.
Today, feminist muslim women face discrimination at workplace in many forms because of various reasons like their appearance, their opinions, the way they are portrayed or represented, other insecurities etc. But amidst all these issues, women still continue to fight and create history because more than anything, women are survivors!
© Shaik Rohia Munavar
Picture credits: Pexels
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A twenty-something feminist, who has worked in the digital marketing industry for over 5
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