Are Hijab-Wearing Muslim Women Discriminated Against in the Workplace?

Sixty-five percent of Muslim women are economically inactive, due to, for example, discrimination, stereotyping and Islamophobia.

Sixty-five percent of Muslim women are economically inactive, due to, for example, discrimination, stereotyping and Islamophobia.

I conducted a study which explores how hijab-wearers believe they are perceived by others in the workplace in London. Five women took part in this research all hailing from different professions: Educational; Administrational, Engineering, Charity and Investment, and Insurance.

Sixty-five percent of Muslim women are economically inactive, due to, for example, discrimination, stereotyping and Islamophobia (House of Commons report, 2016). In turn, 71% of Muslim women are more likely to be unsuccessful when seeking employment compared to their Christian female counterparts, found by Khattab, Johnston, and Manley (2017) in 2015 after analysing the government surveys and data. One of the main reasons is discrimination against the hijab, as it makes them more visibly Muslim. The percentage of working Muslim women who wear the hijab is currently not known.

Discrimination against Muslims residing in the West has heightened post 9/11 attacks. Hijab-wearers commonly known as ‘hijabis’ have become more vulnerable as this attire openly identifies their faith. This has created adverse stereotypes and prejudices, such as British Muslim journalist Fatima Manji has experienced as a first hijab-wearing newsreader on a mainstream channel.

In March 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg passed a legislation where companies can prohibit employees from wearing the hijab. Reasons pertaining to if visible religious or political symbols in the workplace are against company policy. This legislation may provide companies with loopholes by rejecting those females who cover and exclude many from entering employment. This will inevitably hinder many eligible and talented women from entering the workforce and empowering themselves through financial independence.

Much research has been conducted on diversity, particularly regarding gender and BAME issues. However, research on discrimination and perceptions against hijab-wearers in the workplace is rare and only began to be conducted post the 9/11 incident. Most of the research has been conducted in America and Australia which is not strictly comparable to the UK as the most recent figures show only 1% of Muslims comprise the population of the United States of America (Mohamed, 2016) and 2.6% in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). Whereas, 4.4% of Muslims comprise the population of the United Kingdom (2011 Census, 2012). Therefore, there is a vast difference in the visibility of Muslims between those regions and the UK.

This factor is also enhanced due to lower population density in America and Australia. The largest number of Muslim population in the UK reside in London (Office for National Statistics, 2016). Approximately 12% of the London population comprises of those who identify themselves as Muslims (Religion, n.d). Even though there are no statistics reflecting the number of hijab-wearing residents in London it can be assumed that the visibility is higher than the US or Austrailia.

Most of the current research reflects the societal impacts of discrimination against the hijab. Workplace focussed studies in this area particularly in the UK are scant. The present study interviewed five women face-to-face on a one-to-one basis. This provided personal insights concerning the challenges they face daily whilst interacting with others such as team members and senior personnel. Findings identified:

  • As the only hijab-wearers even in diverse environments, discrimination is felt as they find themselves to be a ‘token worker’ and believe they are perceived as being ‘different’ to everybody else.
  • Those that are recruited at senior management level or in a male-dominated environment can feel they have been recruited to fill the diversity quota.
  • These women believe the probability of them progressing to senior management levels is limited due to those levels being monopolised by white males. This is true even for female bottom-heavy environments such as the charity and educational sectors. Reasons pertaining to lack of existence of a hijab-wearer in top management.
  • The hurdles for these women are higher due to the ‘triple jeopardy’ discrimination of being a woman, belonging to the BAME group and wearing a hijab.
  • Informal networking in pubs after hours where valuable relationship building takes place, aid in providing opportunities such as promotion. However, the hijab-wearers practising higher religiosity believe they are at a disadvantage as they cannot attend such gatherings due to religious reasons.
  • They reported feeling that the physical prominence of this religious symbol means that they are defined by others by their faith first and foremost. Due to pre-existing stereotypes and prejudices, these women feel the co-workers distance themselves because they perceive a lack of commonality between themselves and these women.
  • As hijab-wearers these women believe they are expected to comment on terror attacks committed by Muslim extremists because they are made to feel they represent the entire Muslim population worldwide.

Recommendations for organisations

  • Increasing the number of hijab-wearing employees will have a positive impact on the ‘tokens’ making them feel more secure and confident in an environment where they can turn to support from those who look like them.
  • To eradicate misconceptions and negative stereotypes in the workplace employers and policymakers need to openly address issues surrounding religion.
  • Employers should:
  1. Ensure that hijab-wearers are not confronted with inappropriate questions regarding their faith or incidents that take place in the UK or overseas which are unrelated to them.
  2. Work towards creating a representative workplace which reflects the hijab-wearing population in London and in the UK.
  3. Help these women feel comfortable in wearing the hijab, which will, in turn, have a positive impact on the organisation by enhancing and promoting extra engagement.

To read the full dissertation, click here.