On Being a Muslim Woman in the Workplace

Anti-Muslim bias has been increasingly a part of the American cultural landscape, and the last year has been especially horrifying: A New York Times article titled “American Muslims Are Under Attack” showed a disturbing pattern of vandalism, threats, and hate crimes in the months since the San Bernardino attack in December 2015. According to a 2015 Gallup report, 43 percent of Americans have some degree of prejudice toward Muslims, and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s rhetoric after last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris and this month's attack in Orlando gave a national platform to hatred.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anti-Muslim bias is everywhere, including the workplace. Muslim Association of Virginia president Ehsan Islam speculates that workplace prejudice likely disproportionately affects Muslim women, who may wear a hijab or other head covering.

We spoke to five American Muslim women about their experiences working in different industries and regions of the country. Their stories range from overt discrimination to more subtle prejudice, and all five asked that their names be changed for fear of retaliation from their employers and coworkers. Here’s what they had to say.

Lian, Registered Nurse, New Jersey
As the only Muslim in my workplace, there have been moments when my role is primarily as an educator of all things Muslim. Some have been kind enough to ask me directly, while others make negative comments behind my back. Here are some examples:

  • I use my break times to pray in the chapel downstairs. On one such occasion, I announced I was leaving and went per my usual routine. Upon coming back to my desk, a coworker was visibly upset and informed me that when I left another coworker stated, "Allah is not God." Since then, I have always been quiet about my faith.  
  • Whenever I take a moment to step away and offer morning prayers, a coworker immediately starts singing Christian songs as soon as I re-enter the room.
  • The father of a patient requested I not take care of his infant and not be in the room she [shared] with other patients. The management conceded to his requests.
  • Post-9/11, a coworker openly stated that she does not wish to acknowledge Ramadan for me due to the attacks.
  • A coworker asked me publicly if President Obama was a Muslim.

People are both afraid and misinformed. I believe the current election cycle has allowed the content of fear to surface in a manner that has manifested into an opportunity to vocalize thoughts that for the most part have always been considered offensive. I am often informed at work that I am the only Muslim my coworkers have ever met.

My management, in general, has been incredibly supportive and welcoming to the diversity I bring to their staff. However, they tend to shy away from comments my coworkers have said about Muslims post-9/11, and have asked me to remain quiet on the matter. This double message makes it difficult for me to feel that Islamophobia is a rarity, especially since it is constantly part of the national dialogue.

Sara, Engineer, Illinois
I can't say with 100 percent certainty that I have experienced Islamophobia at work. As a woman in a male-dominated industry (engineering), I have certainly experienced sexism — it was blatant and easy to identify. I was passed over for a career-building opportunity and promotions, and my peers refused to make eye contact or speak directly to me in meetings. I even had one instance where a subordinate refused to take direction from me but had no problem doing the task when I found a white male to tell him.

While I assumed this was just sexism, the truth of the matter is, it could have also been racism or Islamophobia. As a female minority who wears the hijab, you never know why you are treated differently. You are left to question why someone in a restaurant gives you dirty looks but no one else at your table, or why customer service reps treat you differently than those before or after you.

I would say Islamophobia is a huge problem in America and the current political climate only makes things worse. The longer fearmongers have the front page of every newspaper, the less safe I feel walking down the street in my neighborhood.  

Fatima, Dental Office Manager, New York
I work at a dental practice and have occasionally experienced Islamophobia with new patients. Islamophobia is usually most prevalent at work right after a terror attack. For example, last year after the San Bernardino terror attack, a new patient at the office declined to be treated by a Muslim.

I have been working at this practice for the past 12 years. I think once your coworkers and employer get to know you as a person, they can look past their fears and assumptions and tear down stereotypes. Most of our patients know me very well and so do most of my coworkers. However, I am pretty sure if I were to start working at a new clinic, it would be initially difficult for me and I'd face prejudice based on the stereotyping in the media.

Personally, I believe that Islamophobia is more prevalent in public spaces, social media, malls, grocery stores, cafes, and parking lots [than in my workplace]. People don't have to be accountable for their actions [there], and as Muslims we don't get the opportunity to address their fears.

Samaira, Teacher, Wisconsin
The one time I experienced Islamophobia in the workplace came from a place I would not have expected. I am a teacher, and I sat down with one of my second-grade students who was having behavior difficulties. I was trying to form a better relationship with him. I allowed the conversation to flow freely when he asked me, "Are you ISIS? Are your friends ISIS?" These questions caught me off guard. It was not a conversation I was trained to have in my years of teacher preparation.

I realized the scarf I wear on my head sends a clear message to everyone that I am Muslim and for those who are uneducated about Islam, it can even be scary. I assured the young boy that I was not ISIS and that all of my Muslim friends were lovely and peaceful. Of course, I hold nothing against the boy who clearly did not know about true Islam. We hugged each other at the end of the interaction and had better conversations in the future. This incident showed me clearly that the lack of education about Islam is what truly causes Islamophobia.

Ayesha, Adjunct Professor, Illinois
Working in a large, Midwestern, public educational institution, I feel that I rarely face Islamophobia at my workplace. The college displays diversity based on the faculty, staff, and student body; that helps filter discrimination to a certain extent. Based on my background as a hijabi Muslim woman, I do experience some pushback by students that test perhaps my level of credentialism or authority in the classroom environment, but that could be based on my status as a woman or a Muslim or both. However, for the most part, I would say that I do not have many experiences of Islamophobia at my workplace.

That said, Islamophobia is definitely is a problem in American workplaces. I would assume that the issue of Islamophobia would be rampant in areas with less diversity. When you have a work environment that accommodates and acknowledges different groups of people such as religion, race, or gender, there is a strong correlation between how the workplace environment recognizes and respects the various groups. For workplaces that allow issues such as Islamophobia be rampant, it does not negatively impact that environment alone — unfortunately, it spreads into families, communities, and, on a larger scale, states and nations.  

You Might Also Like:
The Quiet Misogyny We’re Not Talking About
3 Well-Meaning Assumptions About Women You Never Realized Were Sexist
Let’s Stop Calling Women “Girls”