By Hasan Suroor
August 24, 2016
There’s a widely-viewed online video of a young British Muslim woman, in a Hijab, speaking to the BBC; her face is turned away from the camera to protect her identity. A 21-year-old graduate from Manchester, she is talking about the difficulties she has faced as a Muslim woman finding a job.
"When I was going through an interview for a sales job there were two phone interviews … and I got brilliant feedback. They said: ‘You sound absolutely perfect for this role’, that kind of thing."
But at the face-to-face group interview later, she says, during which she was the only person wearing a Hijab, there was a "change in the tone".
"I felt they were strange, and there was a bit of a change in the atmosphere, and that was not a nice feeling for me."
She Did Not Get The Job.
The BBC interviewed her after a cross-party UK parliamentary committee reported that Muslim women are the "most economically disadvantaged" group in British society, being three times more likely to be unemployed than women generally. They’re also twice more likely to be economically inactive than other women.
The report mentions Islamophobia as a significant contributing factor apart from community and family pressures on women to stay home in traditional roles.
"The impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women should not be underestimated. They are 71 per cent more likely than white Christian women to be unemployed, even when they have the same educational level and language skills," the committee found. This had created a "chill factor", discouraging Muslim women from applying for certain jobs.
More depressing statistics follow – just 35 per cent of Muslim women are in employment as against 69 per cent of non-Muslim women. The contrast is particularly stark in the category of economically "inactive women" – a whopping 58 per cent of Muslim women were economically inactive last year compared to 27 per cent women generally.
The report by the Women and Equalities Committee, which examines government performance on a range of equalities issues, is part of a larger study of employment opportunities for Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims generally, including men. It singles out women as the worst-affected – caught up between discrimination in the wider society on the one hand, and community/family pressures on the other. They face what the committee calls "triple penalty": as women, as an ethnic minority, and as Muslims.
"As well as suffering the disadvantages of Muslim men relating to employment opportunities, some women also face pressures from their communities around education and employment choices, and particular issues of discrimination within the workplace around dress."
Many of the issues it raises are well known and have been documented before. A survey by Dr Nabil Khattab, of Bristol University, last year showed that Muslim women were nearly 70 per cent more likely to be looking for work unsuccessfully because of "discrimination in recruiting and hiring practices" than others.
But it is the MPs’ startling conclusion that Muslim women are the "most economically disadvantaged" which has made people sit up and sparked a debate.
It has been welcomed for its candid acknowledgment of the British state and society’s failure to treat Muslims fairly, "vindicating", according to campaigners, the Muslim sense of grievance, especially around religious discrimination.
Equally importantly, it shines light on the misogynist and patriarchal attitudes in the Muslim community which prevent women from achieving their full potential. It says the "pressures that some women feel from parts of their communities to fulfil a more traditional role … [have] exacerbated the very real inequality, discrimination and Islamophobia that Muslim women experience" outside.
"The Equality Act applies to all. All women, regardless of faith, should be free to make their own choices about all aspects of their lives, including education, employment and dress."
Gulnaz P Brennan, chairwoman and founder of Women in Neighbourhoods which works for female empowerment and gender equality, calls the report "spot on".
"Muslim women are disadvantaged and this starts from home," she says. "Culture and religion are tools often used to disadvantage women. I work with lots of disadvantaged women. Some of them are exceptionally talented, their skills need to be recognised and developed."
While stressing that the government needs to do more to ensure a level playing field for Muslim women, activists, however, point out that it cannot be left to the state alone. There are too many barriers within the Muslim community blocking women’s progress; unless Muslims themselves make efforts to remove these, no amount of government help is likely to succeed.
"No matter how excellent the recommendations set out in the report or how effectively they are implemented they will only lead to minimal improvement [in the absence of community efforts]," said Yasmin Weaver, project manager of the rights group Inspire.
Many of the women I spoke to cited Muslim "self-segregation" as a hindrance to their social and economic mobility and said the community had become more insular with a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment.
"We are told that our Muslim identity is in danger and it is our duty to protect it," said Firdaus– she would give only her first name – a young woman of Bangladeshi origin who works in a London pharmacy. Her elder brother forced her to wear the Hijab but she felt “so weird" that she discarded it after a while.
"I must thank my mum. She came to my rescue and got my brother to climb down, though he is still very cross. I feel like a normal person now."
Some believe that community and family pressures are often exaggerated to "cover up" the scale of religious discrimination faced by Muslim women.
Sajida Hussain, a senior teacher of Pakistani origin in a Muslim school in Bolton, says she has personally faced "a lot of discrimination" when she was looking for a job.
"After delivering an outstanding lesson and excellent interview I was shocked when they said: ‘We thought the other candidate fits in better.’ The reason, of course, was that the other candidate was white and all other staff were white."
Such Stories Abound.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There’s also a sense of optimism that attitudes both in the community and the wider society are changing, though very slowly. And the change is being driven mostly by women themselves – mothers who don’t wish their own fate to be visited on their daughters.
According to Roushon Siddika Ahmed, founder of Breaking the Cycle UK, who herself is of Bangladeshi descent and works with Muslim women in Manchester and Leeds, there is a "wealth of talent" waiting to be "properly harnessed".
"A number of women have become self-employed with the talent they have and are running home-based businesses without a large investment. The key to their success has been training and mentoring."
The parliamentary committee has made several recommendations, including a "name-blind" job application system; and set a deadline of 2020 for the government to come up with a "coherent" plan to "rebuild trust" with Muslims and tackle inequalities faced by them.
For any plan to succeed, however, prevailing attitudes towards Muslims – and within the Muslim community towards women – will need to change. Bringing that about may not prove easy.
Hasan Suroor is a London-based writer and commentator.