By Nabeela Ahsan
Has anyone noticed lately how difficult it is to find work, especially if one wears a hijab? It feels like there is a secret checklist with HR departments that reads like this:
If yes to one or more of the above- DO NOT EMPLOY!
Still, for a woman who proudly ascribes to all of the characteristics in the aforementioned list, I have been gainfully employed for most of the past six years in this country.
Admittedly, there are quite a number of Muslim women in the workforce, mainly in banking, medicine, accounting and retail. They are thriving in their roles and in their office environments. Over Eid I met a young woman whose non-Muslim colleagues also fasted for a day to support her in Ramadan. That blew me away!
We are blessed to be in a country that embraces diversity. Work places are a wonderful ground for a rich cultural exchange. It is fascinating to find people from far-flung regions of the world come together to work in one organization. As Muslim women it enables us to increase awareness about our community and negate some of the views that are propagated by popular culture. Like for example, the reason we usually buy pressure cookers is to cook food and food only. Promise.
In a less diverse work environment, one has to get used to being “the other”. We are not one of them and can never be. We are watched, every reaction surreptitiously observed, studied. Judged. We can either blend in or stand out. Blending in is an ongoing process for we will still be “the other” no matter how many NHL games you watch or fundraising marathons you run in. What blending in does is give you “fodder” for small talk so you can interact at the water cooler. If you opt to stand out…I cannot even fathom how much of a struggle that might be… however, there is a happy medium and that’s what I always aim for.
Having worked in the public sphere, academia, and currently in the industry, I have noticed recurring patterns of perception towards women wearing the hijab. I like to address concerns and questions as I understand that media has colored the way people see our dress code. One question I get asked a lot is how I can be an educated woman and still sport a Hijab-is it being forced onto me? Am I repressed? Am I an extremist? Over the years I have had to be very clear about why I wear the hijab so as to put it across convincingly to others. Once I have conveyed to them the reasons behind my choice of head covering, I have to go on and prove to them that just because I am doing this, I am not judgmental of their lifestyles. And no, I do not wear the hijab to bed.
Sometimes I feel that just because I wear the hijab, I have a greater responsibility to maintain a better work ethic and conduct. In my previous workplace, my colleagues would frequently go to a nearby bar after work. I always declined their invitations because I did not want people to view me as one of the people who were drinking, even if I was only sipping soda. I would almost always go with them if they were going to a restaurant since eating together is a bonding experience in this culture as well. Others have criticized my viewpoint but I have often felt that my peers’ opinion of Muslim women is going to be based on their experience and interactions with me. Hopefully at some point they will know that I will not spontaneously combust every time they use the F-word in my presence (because they say it and then glance at me fearfully, every time).
In every workplace there is going to be the odd person who is racist. They may keep it under wraps, but it sometimes leaks out. Over the years I have come to recognize these people for what they are, and have laughed at their narrow-mindedness. In my first job in Canada, I remember a discussion amongst colleagues about how we could dress up on Halloween’s day for work. I told them I wouldn’t know what I could dress up as and a manager stage whispered “you could be a terrorist!”. I was offended but I took it in my stride- there are intolerant people in the world, and there are certainly some intolerant Muslims.
My employers recently had a company barbecue and I asked for halal options. It gave me a chance to explain what that is, and how similar it is to Kosher food. My advice to fellow hijab-rocking women is to tread gently; try to see yourself as they have been trained to see you and it will help you to understand them. Don’t get unnerved by their ignorance of our lifestyles. At work as in life, our faith guides the way for us- God is our provider, we just have to work hard and hold up our end of the bargain.
About the author:
Nabeela Ahsan is a mom of three, living and working in Missisauga. In her free time, she likes to watch “Dr. Who” with her boys and “Two Broke Girls” with her daughter. She has closet dreams of doing her PhD. She has co-foundered a company InterCloDesigns that provides sustainable clothing aid in countries affected by disaster.