By Assma Youssef
After graduating from university a few months ago, I knew that Brexit Britain would be heading for a few years of uncertainty. Like many fresh graduates, this uncertainty almost mimicked my own anxiety about my next career steps. But, as a British Muslim woman, learning about the findings of the Women and Equalities committee 2016 report confirming that Muslim women face triple discrimination when trying to enter the workplace unsettled me even more. We face a penalty for being a woman, for being from an ethnic minority background, and for being Muslim.
While I was aware of the intersecting forms of oppression affecting women of colour, it was only when I left university that this became my lived reality. Internalised stereotypes come into play when a visible Muslim woman comes in front of an interviewing panel. Questions emerge over her citizenship, her belonging to the UK, her religious beliefs and the pronunciation of her Muslim-sounding name. She may have obtained a degree, masters or PhD from a leading university, with an impeccable British accent, but she will still face such questions in the work place. She may be challenged on her sociability, and her relationship with colleagues. All these questions assume that she is an outsider because she does not attend the local Friday night pub session.
It may be subconscious, but these questions are borne from misconceptions about Muslim women. They draw on the idea that Muslim women are unassimilable which is problematic for employers’ work environment. In my first experience of employment, I remember noticing this through a difference in treatment as my (woman) supervisor would give over-time slots to certain personnel and not me. Recently, I found out that she was a sympathiser of the far-right political party Britain First. Looking back on this experience, I have learnt to trust my instincts over discrimination which is so incredibly insidious in the United Kingdom. We are made to think that it is all in our head, but it is not. It is a lived reality.
In addition to this, the Select Committee sitting in April 2016 underlined that ‘research into name-based discrimination in recruitment showed that applicants with non-white British-sounding names are 29 percentage points more likely to be discriminated against’. The No5 Chambers Employment Law Barrister Nabila Mallick commented on an increased number of discrimination claims from Muslims seeking rights of prayer at work, rights to Muslim clothing, and the right to take time off for religious holidays, which can worsen with political and social events. Recently, the European court rules employers can ban women from wearing ostentatious religious symbols like the headscarf. This has sparked debates in the UK over banning the veil at schools and the work place. Having been involved with work on Muslim women issues for some time, I know that this atmosphere of uncertainty coupled with rising Islamophobia will result in greater insidious violence and discrimination in the work place and recruitment process.
Adding onto this, many Muslim women face cultural prejudices which police their mobility and decision-making. I am saddened every time I hear of a female Muslim student who must turn down a mentorship because she is fearful of what community members may say if she is seen with a man. Or an energetic Muslim woman who dreams of travelling, but has her mobility restricted based on cultural guardianship laws. These may be minority examples but they highlight a serious problem – no one should compromise with their career and life aspirations because of such patriarchal and un-Islamic attitudes. And it is these community prejudices as well as neo-colonial prejudices which must also be challenged by Muslim women advocates.
This form of advocacy should begin at a young age. More young Muslim girls should be provided with the social capital to equip them to understand the reasons why they are constantly questioned about their identity, citizenship and appurtenance. More mentoring opportunities will assist in expanding networking opportunities to show them that their career aspirations are possible, and not restricted to a set time scale. Through these networks, Muslim women can be equipped with greater awareness of the ways in which racism and sexism intersect to ensure they remain in low-skilled jobs. They can also help to give Muslim women the strength to know their value when negotiating a salary or thinking about their future. The job of advocates at Muslim Women Connect is to show that by uniting and confronting systemic racism and sexism lurking in the attitudes of people around us, we can take steps to change the situation.