‘The glass ceiling is incredibly low for Muslim women’
Prejudice based on their religious clothing and faith is creating extra barriers for workers in the UK
Muneera, a 19-year-old art student from London, wants to set up her own business selling her paintings. But she wears a headscarf, and she is concerned that it might be difficult. “I don’t know if it’ll be a real problem, or if it’s all in my head. I want to know how to deal with it if people in the business world act differently towards me because of my scarf.” Muneera’s friend Nour, meanwhile, wants to be a doctor. “I don’t really get career advice at college,” she says. “So talking to other Muslim women helps. When I see them doing their own thing and getting on with their careers, it’s really motivating.”
Muneera and Nour went to the Urban Muslim Woman Show, an annual networking event that took place earlier this summer, in order to meet new contacts who might guide them in their careers. Like many Muslim women, they fear their professional identity may be distorted by the hijab and the presumptions people have about it.
Some of the barriers facing them affect all women, such as unequal pay and gender discrimination. But many Muslim women face extra difficulties, such as prejudice based on their religious clothing and faith, while others feel sidelined in terms of career advice or guidance.
In December last year, an all-party parliamentary report found Muslim women of south Asian origin are susceptible to triple discrimination because of their gender, ethnicity and religion. The report, published by the Runnymede Trust, expressed concern that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were more likely to be made redundant in comparison with other women and found employers made generic stereotypes about them, such as expecting them to want to stop working after having children. Many Muslim women interviewed for the report spoke of disparaging comments made about their dress. Others, including second-generation, highly-educated graduates, said job offers only materialised after they removed their hijabs; many felt written off by recruitment companies.
When Fauzia, 32, first started work in the banking sector as a graduate, she was determined to make a good impression on her predominately male colleagues. But she found they didn’t take her seriously and rarely noted her contributions. She feels certain it was because she was not just the only woman in the office, but also because she wore a headscarf.
“They used to refer to me as ‘the girl with the sheet on her head’. They thought it was funny, but it was incredibly hurtful,” says Fauzia. “I felt belittled every day. It was like they didn’t want to acknowledge me as a real person by using my name.”
Sara Khan from the Muslim women’s rights group Inspire says: “The glass ceiling is incredibly low for Muslim women. The Muslim women I work with say that they don’t understand why they aren’t given the same chances as other women. They question whether it’s their name or the way they dress.”
Numerous recommendations were put forward after the publication of the Runnymede Trust report, such as increasing the take-up of “blankname” job application forms. But few, if any, of the report’s recommendations have been implemented.
“It’s incredibly complex,” says Khan. “The transition from leaving education to entering the labour market is where Muslim women can find themselves disadvantaged. There’s an assumption that Muslim women will marry younger and have children younger whereas, really, there are so many Muslim women who want to work. Recruitment agencies could do a lot more with graduate Muslim women in terms of putting them forward for positions, but job centres also have a role to play in helping women with writing their CV and basic interview skills.”
Many Muslim women, like Muneera and Nour, are looking elsewhere for career advice. Initiatives like the Muslim Women’s Network, which offers training schemes and highlights female role models, and the Urban Muslim Woman Show are proving popular.
Nuna, a 38-year-old banker, says she has never encountered discrimination in her career (she does not wear a headscarf). But she feels it is important for Muslim women to support each other: “What’s missing for me is simply having a concentration of like-minded Muslim women in the workplace. So surely it can only be a good thing to bring women who share similar beliefs together.”