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Employment and Discrimination Experiences of Muslim Women

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Employment
Wordcount: 5810 words Published: 25th Mar 2019

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Topics such as integration and race relations in terms of education, employment and housing have become central considerations in the media, literature and in politics. However, the start of the discussions on these hot topics has always come from a majority vantage point of view. Despite the subject at hand being about minorities, it is very rare that their views are broadcasted. This essay attempts to bring forth these viewpoints from one of the most ignored minority groups in the UK. According to Trevor Philips, ‘there aren’t many groups I can think of who are more stereotyped yet less understood by the wider community than working Muslim women.[1] Given that Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have the highest rates of unemployment in the UK, it begs the question of why?[2] Is it because of the rise of Islamophobia (which will be mentioned later in this essay.)?[3] Islamophobia is the dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.[4]  Perhaps the xenophobia from the restricted view that all Muslims are immigrants is the driving force behind this question; xenophobia being the dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries[5]. Amongst these two reasons, racism (prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior)[6] and gender discrimination (discrimination on grounds of sex or gender; sexual discrimination)[7] will also be explored as a motive behind not employing hijab-wearing women. With Britain being such a multicultural country, the integration of communities and an improvement in tolerance and respect, there are now laws set in place to protect people from discrimination. Article 14 of the Human Rights Act (1998) “requires that all of the rights and freedoms set out in the Act must be protected and applied without discrimination” therefore it is “illegal to discriminate on a wide range of grounds including ‘sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’”.[8] Despite laws being set in place, there are many cases of this legislation being ignored and broken; these will be further discussed in this essay. The conclusion of this essay will explain the most salient factor that leads to the employment discrimination (this is a form of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity by employers)[9] of hijab-wearing women.

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As Islam is now the second largest religion in the world[10]-closely following Christianity- many countries and governments in Europe have attempted to respond in a more accommodating way through providing a clear framework on the training of imams and recognising the Muslim organisations that may be eligible for public financial support amongst other things. [11] In 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched a Muslim Women Power List to celebrate the estimated 100,000 Muslim women in the United Kingdom who were working at the time. [12]The intention behind this list was to raise awareness in terms of the numerous Muslim women who were responsible for groundbreaking social, economic and political change, no doubt shedding light onto the significant contributions that have been and still have the potential of being made. Despite this, there are still unemployed Muslim women who are side-lined within polarised communities. As it stands, 5.4% of the general population is unemployed in the United Kingdom whereas ,for British Muslims, it is 12.8%.[13]It is clear to see that the positive attempts to integrate Islam and Muslims into the UK are severely undermined when institutes and government departments issue bans on Muslims to wear hijabs.[14] The reasoning behind this has been to avoid the sexualisation of little girls. This ban mirrors the actions of several European countries that have now introduced laws banning school students from wearing the headscarf. In these countries, civil servants are also prohibited from wearing items of clothing, which could be argued to be a symbol of non-integration, reasoned by the principle of secularism which is seen throughout Europe.[15] The fixation of the media with religious clothing within the media and politics is fuelling the intolerance of the majority, simultaneously inducing the fears of the minority. The comments made by Salma Yaqoob (a well-respected Muslim councillor) during the protracted media debate on wearing the full- face veils shows the stigmatisation of all Muslim women[16]:

We are either poor pathetic females needing rescuing or we are a threat because of the clothes we wear. Well, which is it?’[17]

From an employer’s point of view, the candidate’s social skills are also put into question, therefore, whereas they themselves may not be objecting of hijab-wearing Muslim women, the candidate’s ability to integrate and socialise with different communities abroad is taken into account. The secularism in other countries, especially in Europe will make it very difficult for people to focus on the message she and her employer may be trying to deliver. In countries like France and Germany, these problems may arise from their [France’s] traditional idea of secularism where there is a strict separation between religion and politics and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The French law against the wearing of conspicuous items of religious clothing in school was put in place in 2004 and was non-discriminatory in the sense that it applied to all religions (such as Sikhs wearing the turban and Christians wearing crucifixes.)[18] According to the Ministry of National Education, this law has obtained the result of ensuring that religious symbols in schools have practically disappeared, however it can be criticised that this may not be the case for those who have been educated abroad or those who have been educated in (mainly Catholic) private schools. The Ministry of National Education also does not acknowledge the fact that the lives of Muslim women- mothers and daughters- have been dramatically changed through the stigmatisation of the hijab leading to humiliation and abuse (this is unsurprisingly especially experienced in educational institutions). Hijab-wearing Muslim women have been prevented from acting as witnesses at marriage ceremonies and have been banned from juries. It is clear to see that this law is being interpreted in a way that Muslim girls and women who wear the hijab have extremely restricted civil rights.

During the case of Bougnaoui and Micropole SA,[19] Ms Bougnaoui faced the same treatment. Ms Bougnaoui (who is a hijab-wearing practising Muslim woman) was employed by Micropole as a design engineer. The company received a complain about her from a client who felt embarrassed and a number of employees who requested the company that there be ‘no veil next time’. When asked by the company to not wear a hijab next time when visiting clients, Ms Bougnaoui refused and was consequently dismissed. She then raised a claim for religious discrimination in the French Labour Tribunal however was unsuccessful in this and in the following appeal. The Court of Cassation referred this to the Court of Justice of the European Union after a further appeal for a preliminary ruling. Article 4(1) provides that a difference in the treatment based on a protected characteristic may be lawful. Mss Bougnaoui’s dismissal could be viewed as an act of direct discrimination because it is evident that it was a prohibition on her expression of her religion through the hijab. Although this does not necessarily mean that she was dismissed because she was a Muslim woman (as the prohibition on direct discrimination in the Directive extends to manifestations of religion or belief), it is clear to see that Ms Bougnaoui had been treated less favourably than a comparator would have been treated in a homogeneous situation. Advocate General Sharpston confirmed that the treatment Ms Bougnaoui had faced in terms of her dismissal was an act of direct discrimination because it was evident that it was on the grounds that she was wearing religious apparel. Discrimination would only be lawful if based on an ‘occupational requirement’ (which is when an employer can show it’s necessary for someone to have a particular protected characteristic to do a job therefore it may not be unlawful discrimination.).[20] Examples of this is when a Sikh employee insists on wearing their turban when working at a post that requires the wearing of protective headgear (such as a hard hat). Primary research shows that hijab-wearing women from Slough have also faced similar isolation, showing that this issue is not solely experienced by women going abroad. One of the participants faced an experience where one of her colleagues told the other to “not to socialise with the likes of her.” This shows that even if a hijab-wearing woman does not face employment discrimination she may go on to face discrimination in the workplace. This case is a prime example of when the laws in the United Kingdom may protect an employee from such kinds of discrimination however there may not be such solid measures set in place in other countries, making it very difficult for an employer to willingly put themselves in this type of predicament as it is a setback in terms of efficiency yet the company image and reputation may also be compromised.

This being said, in Germany (and Austria), the concordat (an agreement especially between the Vatican and a secular government relating to matters of mutual interest)[21] between state and the church officially recognises religious communities and provides special status and rights. This accounts for the specific problems associated with integrating Islam in Germany as Islam has been locked out of this privileged status. The partial secularisation of the Netherlands, United and Norway, paradoxically, accounts for the much larger presence of official religious infrastructures for Muslims in these specific countries.[22] In the UK, the state funds the church[23] and, in relation to places of worship, there have been substantial accommodations made for the Islamic religious requirements. Examples of this include places of worship, school uniform and burials.  This all shows, that despite Muslim women having the rights and freedoms set in place to protect them in a work environment, they have no such security in foreign lands.

Learning English demonstrates an individual’s and community’s commitment to adapt to life in UK, which is why language barriers further emphasise the isolation immigrant Muslim communities may face in Europe, alongside the wearing of distinctive dress (hijab). This allows easy identification of adherents of some religions, which may lead to discrimination. Since the heightened awareness of Islam after the 9/11 attacks, Muslims may be prone to experiencing – what was known in Northern Ireland as- the ‘chill factor’. This is when an individual feels unwelcome in various establishments and subsequently does not even bother to apply for jobs because they feel so alienated. The marginalisation of such groups that leads to this ‘chill factor’ is caused through simplifying one’s beliefs about those people and extrapolating them to the whole race or religion. A common example is the belief that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are unwilling to learn the English language in order to fit in and this is possibly proved as when, during a over-the-phone interview conducted by Quilliam, these women were asked ‘What would most help you get a job?’, only 20% felt that an improvement in their English-speaking skills would be a help. This could reflect their refusal to change or adapt to their new environment nevertheless there are a variety of explanations for this response that could show the contrary. Given that, of the women who were interviewed, 70% had been living in the United Kingdom for 10 years, possibly leading to their English being equivalent to if they had immigrated here when they were younger[24] or simply being better than those new to the country. This would mean that their focus would be better targeted toward other factors such as having better qualifications (14% of women voted for their option). Another explanation could be that they wished to go into a job that did not necessarily require better English (such as a chef in an Asian restaurant), obviously registering that English could also benefit them. This mirrors the respondents’ desire to work within the ethnic labour market (referring to the people who are able and wanting of jobs in relation to the available number of jobs of which ethnic minorities occupy) where the use of English would be minimal or completely unnecessary. Given that the majority of [older] women have spent their time raising children at home, the concept of gaining the requisite English skills may seem unrealistic or unachievable to them. Research conducted by Quilliam into 634 South Asian Muslim women showed that of the 57% of participants who wanted a paid job, 20% felt that their English was not good enough therefore prohibiting their ability be employed.[25] This is evidently seen as a justified explanation for their unemployment as it is obvious that proficient English leads to better paid jobs and lacking basic English means that they are less likely to be employed. Showing willingness to learn and speak English demonstrates that the individual is attempting to fit into the wider community and to adapt to their life in the United Kingdom. [26]Through doing so the individual reduces the factors that make them an outsider to the rest of the community enabling them to contribute to current political, social and economic issues as understood by British society. Of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi women – whose economic activity is disproportionately low- the hardest to reach women are those who are first-generation immigrants.[27] These women have shown to primarily stay at home due to their limited experience of mainstream society, which has been a result of their lack of education. This has lead them to be the occupiers of the lowest socio-economic activity.

“I have been unemployed for the last nine years due to looking after children. I have worked previously and want to go back to work, but feel nervous and apprehensive. I haven’t made an attempt to look for employment or courses that could improve my chances because I don’t feel confident”. Bangladeshi woman, London[28]

Work experience, or lack of, then plays a vital role in hijab-wearing women’s employability, over and above having the necessary skills and qualifications as well as English proficiency.  According to the DWP (Department for work and pensions), among those without significant work experience more women wanting to enter the labour market after resuming fulltime responsibility for childcare for a number of years.[29]Work experience is vital for easing that the women back into working life as well as to gain experience in a working environment that may be significantly different to how it was 10 or 15 years ago (this is also equally important for those women who have never worked before.)

Work experience would reap many benefits as it would allow the individual to improve upon their knowledge of the working world in the UK, alongside allowing them to build contact with communities they may have had minimal exposure working with.  Furthermore, these women would be able to build a network of contacts, which they may not have had before, and this would be especially useful if they were outside of their own community.  For mothers with substantial domestic responsibilities, a trial period of work experience would be extremely insightful for themselves and their families are like to experiment with and experience if formal for informal childcare is something they could handle alongside participating in the workforce. As evidenced, work experience provides assistance to those looking to go into work, however, this is easier said than done because, in order to acquire a job, for the purposes of work experience, experience in the workplace is required.  Systematically speaking it is therefore extremely difficult for a hijab-wearing woman – who already faces challenges in terms of finding work-to then find a stable paying job.  This then creates a vicious cycle, one which is extremely difficult to break, especially for those who lack the education and proficient English required to find work in the first place.

Mothers have a salient role in influencing their children because the majority of the time they are the primary caregiver. It is therefore important for Muslim women to challenge stereotypes about them that may lead to them being seen as a less desirable candidate by a potential employer. Stereotypes of Muslim women can be misleading and dangerously divisive, such as in the case of them being presented as people who do not want to work. However, the research conducted by Quilliam has shown the opposite as 57% of Muslim women expressed how they wished to find a paid job, many of which expressing that they wished to go into the childcare and teaching field. 158/367 of the women interviewed wanted a job to provide for their families, showing their understanding of how two sources of income would be able to support their families more so than if it was just their husband who was employed. It is understandable why an employer may not want to hire people and groups of people who are deemed to be lazy and unwilling to work as they want efficiency in the workplace. The data from the research clearly shows the opposite, albeit the small sample size.

Hijab-wearing women are either seen as an oppressed sex who are forced to wear hijabs as a way of being controlled through men[30] or as a tool used by an extremist religion stemming from examples such as female suicide bombers.[31]Both these representations go directly against the interpretation of the Quran (the Muslim holy book) that the hijab is essentially a scarf- like piece of fabric that is used to cover the hair and chest as an expression of piety to dress modestly.[32]

It is very difficult to separate ethnoreligious factors’ impact on the success of a hijab-wearing Muslim women however extracting the factor and influence of sex is much easier. The impacts of discriminating against can be easily identified when the differences in terms of treatment towards the different sexes is the only independent variable. When the religion of the men and women is kept the same, that differences in terms of employment are vast. Of the 12.8% of Muslims who are unemployed in the UK, a staggering 65% of those are women. There can be number of explanations for this. The first being the portrayal of women within Islam. Another reason for this is the portrayal of women as a whole. Internalised stereotypes come into play when a Muslim woman comes in front of an interview panel e.g. about her religion and gender. She may be single now however her career aspirations may change once she gets married and hopes to pursue a family. Hijab-wearing women are either seen as an oppressed sex who are forced to wear hijabs as a way of being controlled through men[33] or as a tool used by an extremist religion stemming from examples such as female suicide bombers.[34]Both these representations go directly against the interpretation of the Quran (the Muslim holy book) that the hijab is a essentially a scarf- like piece of fabric that is used to cover the hair and chest as an expression of piety to dress modestly.[35] And an employer, hiring someone who is seen to be a controversial representation of extremism can be very difficult.  This is due to the way that these women are represented, especially in media.[36] If many people believe a religion to oppress women through forcing them to wear an item of clothing that restricts them, or if a company is seen supporting those who are represented in such a negative light then it may portray the idea that that company is in agreement with the same message.  The banning of hijabs in other countries is also a very important factor that the employer must take into consideration ( as previously evidenced). Alternatively, if an employer agrees with those stereotypes then they may feel threatened and therefore may not employ her. During research conducted by Quilliam, 22 percent of women stated that it was their husband’s choice for them to not work. This being said, of those who stated that it was their own decision not to work, there is not a certain method of ensuring that this was not an informed choice.  Many will agree that Islam as a religion does not discourage women from working.  In response to one of the questions asking “what would most help you to get a job?” 24 percent of women responded that they would like more support from their husbands and family.

“There are very few Bangladeshi husbands and families that support women working.  This is not just the case amongst Bangladeshi, but is also prevailing among the Pakistani and Indian community.”[37]

POEM’s pilots began in March 2007 where the main targets have been a few cities in the UK, in which there are high levels of economic inactivity, and deprivation and large groups of ethnic minorities.  The aim of this initiative is to support non-working partners who are not in contact with a jobcentre plus services or claiming that what benefits, by focusing on outreach.  They reported that the support of the wider family was often critical in making or breaking a client journey.  This was especially seen within Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, some of whom were reluctant to embark upon the above programme without the support of their family and their partners who needed to be convinced that this program would be of the wider benefit to the family if they were to proceed.

Not a single respondent in the Quilliam research articulated that women working is incompatible with their religious beliefs.  This being said, religious views will have been internalised to inform outlooks on all aspects of life, including attitudes towards work and a family. In the Muslim community, it is valued that the woman stays at home; this may be seen as controversial because, although not negative, this can sometimes lose the balance that the only role women can play is as mothers. Sarah Joseph, editor of the Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel, reported by the Guardian:

“I am not saying employment in the only way to achieve, but I do think the benefits of having women out there, talking, disgusting, being engaged-it’s important.”[38]

If the above information is representative of all hijab-wearing Muslim women then it is clear to see that the factor of religion does not necessarily limit or restrict them from working, showing how it is not the religious aspect that oppresses women but more so the cultural side of it.  Over time the overlap with religion and culture has led to the stigmatisation of the hijab.  Because cultural values play such a huge role in determining how the woman upholds the respect of the family within South Asian women, the same attitudes should not, in theory, and extrapolated towards women from different backgrounds such as white Muslim women.

The question, however, is that if a woman is possessing the threatening qualities then why isn’t the same discrimination faced by men? This could be because Muslim women are more visible than men due to their more overt religious clothing such as the hijab meaning that employees are more easily able to identify them and subsequently discriminate against them. As an employer, it is more difficult to hire a woman as opposed to a man because of the possibility that she may take maternity leave after having a child or children. Financially, it is a strain to pay an employee for not being able working and then to hire a temporary replacement in their place. 44% of British Muslim stated that they were unable to work because they had to look after the home and children.  This contrasts with the 16% of the general UK population who felt the same way. [39]

Traditionally Pakistani and Bangladeshi family sizes are larger than white families, which will tend to mean longer periods outside of the labour force.  This implies that a high and longer lasting level of childcare responsibility for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women is expected and required.  These stereotypes make it very easy to assume white employees are much more easily to ‘manage’.

This essay, from the start, was completely based on what employers see on the surface of a potential employee.  The three factors that may lead to a hijab-wearing woman facing discrimination are gender discrimination, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.  After weighing up all three factors, it is evident to see that the most influential factor that may cause hijab-wearing women from facing employment discrimination is Islamophobia.  Whereas advances are being made to welcome and integrate Muslims into Europe, there are still negative connotations to the religion as a result of recent extremist acts of terror such as 9/11.  Indirectly women are presented as the weaker sex due to the south Asia’s emphasis on the importance of being a mother; it is here that family values are held great stead; and this means that the woman often has to stay at home -away from the labour market for some time-this is also a result of south Asian families being typically larger than white families.  Consequently these women would have to take several leaves of maternity, as they are legally obligated to. By employing someone from background which stereotypes them to have a significantly smaller family size, the employer is able to be more financially efficient. In different countries within Europe, the same measures are not put in place to protect hijab-wearing women as they are in the United Kingdom, putting a strain on those employees who must go abroad because Islam as a faith is seen as alien.  This is evidenced through the lack of adaptation made by the communities and governments there because Islamic religious items of clothing are banned in several countries across Europe.  This shows those countries are unwilling to accept, integrate, and tolerate the Islamic faith.  This makes it very difficult for a Muslim employee who wears overt items of religious clothing to socialise abroad.  As an employee this problem can be avoided by simply not hiring those a Muslim background, especially those wear adherents of their faith.  Another example of when hijab-wearing women are made to feel alienated from the rest of society is when they are unable to speak profession English-this is typically seen amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi first generation immigrants.  Not only are they are unable to participate within conversation regarding political, economic and social change, they are unable to acquire jobs-particularly those that require high levels of English-speaking-that are of higher pay.  Due to this reason these women are seen as hard to reach and maybe stereotyped as people who are unwilling to integrate with the rest of society.  As a consequence of being present in this way these women are unable to acquire work experience which may lead to them being unable to find permanent work for themselves which, contrary to belief, many of them want to have.  Regardless of if the employer chooses not to hire a hijab-wearing woman based on the grounds that she is female, Muslim, or an immigrant (all of these are factors which are illegal to discriminate against), from this essay can be seen that it is the strong undercurrent of the negative interpretation of the Islamic faith that is the root of such types of discrimination.

[1] Philips, Trevor (March 2009), ‘EHRC Honour Professional Muslim Women’

[2] Dyke, A. and James, L. (2018). Immigrant, Muslim, Female:. [ebook] Quilliam

[3] Batchelor, T. (2017). Islamophobic hate crimes jump fivefold after London Bridge terror attack

[4] Oxford Dictionaries | English. (n.d.). Islamophobia | Definition of Islamophobia in English by Oxford Dictionaries.

[5] Oxford Dictionaries | English. (n.d.). xenophobia | Definition of xenophobia in English by Oxford Dictionaries.

[6] Oxford Dictionaries | English. (n.d.). racism | Definition of racism in English by Oxford Dictionaries.

[7] Oxford Dictionaries | English. (n.d.). gender discrimination | Definition of gender discrimination in English by Oxford Dictionaries

[8] Equalityhumanrights.com. (2016). Article 14: Protection from discrimination | Equality and Human Rights Commission

[9] En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Employment discrimination

[10] Hackett, C. and McClendon, D. (2017). Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe

[11] Fekete, L. (n.d). Integration, Islamaphobia and civil rights in Europe.

[12] The Guardian. (2009). Muslim Women Power List.

[13] Fenton, S. (2016). The 6 charts which show the employment barriers faced by British Muslims.

[14] PUnited Kingdomas, A. (2018). What UNITED KINGDOM school’s hijab ‘ban’ can teach us.

[15] Fekete, L. (2018). Integration, Islamaphobia and civil rights in Europe.

[16] Fekete, L. (n.d). Integration, Islamaphobia and civil rights in Europe

[17] Edemariam, A. (2012). Respect’s Salma Yaqoob: ‘Why I quit’.

[18] Mooker, R. (2016). Hijab ban = direct discrimination – MacRoberts LLP.

[19] Mooker, R. (2016). Hijab ban = direct discrimination – MacRoberts LLP

[20] Citizensadvice.org.United Kingdom. (n.d.). Discrimination at work – occupational requirements

[21] Oxford Dictionaries | English. (n.d.). concordat | Definition of concordat in English by Oxford Dictionaries

[22] Fekete, L. (2018). Integration, Islamaphobia and civil rights in Europe.



[25] Dyke, A. and James, L. (2009) Immigrant, Muslim, Female: Triple Paralysis?

[26] Dyke, A. and James, L. (2009) Immigrant, Muslim, Female: Triple Paralysis? [ebook]

[27] Dyke, A. and James, L. (2009) Immigrant, Muslim, Female: Triple Paralysis? [ebook] p.24

[28] Dyke, A. and James, L. (2009) Immigrant, Muslim, Female: Triple Paralysis?

[29] Barnes et al, ‘Ethnic minority Outreach.’ (DWP), p130.

[30] Yusuf, H., Wolfe-Robinson, M., Green, L., Monzani, C. and Rinvolucri, B. (2015). My hijab has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a feminist statement – video.

[31] The Economist. (2017). Why Boko Haram uses female suicide-bombers.

[32] Alam, F. and Latiff, Z. (n.d.). The Roles of Media in Influencing Women Wearing Hijab: An Analysis.

[33] Yusuf, H., Wolfe-Robinson, M., Green, L., Monzani, C. and Rinvolucri, B. (2015). My hijab has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a feminist statement – video.

[34] The Economist. (2017). Why Boko Haram uses female suicide-bombers.

[35] Alam, F. and Latiff, Z. (n.d.). The Roles of Media in Influencing Women Wearing Hijab: An Analysis.

[36] See appendix

[37] Women’s Business center, Newham (London), 2nd  June 2009

[38] (Smith, 2006)

[39] Fenton, S. (2016). The 6 charts which show the employment barriers faced by British Muslims.


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