Hijab leads to discrimination

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Hijab leads to discrimination

Wearing traditional Islamic dress at work poses problems for some Muslim women, according to a summary report released this week by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC).

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Wearing traditional Islamic dress at work poses problems for some Muslim women, according to a summary report released this week by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC).

The report examines, among a number of other issues, how Muslim women wearing the hijab are faced with incorrect perceptions about their professional ability, cleanliness and their affect on customers.

‘IsmaÚ — Listen’: National Consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians is the culmination of consultations with1,400 Arab and Muslim Australians about their experiences not only at the workplace but also in other areas within the Australian community.

‘It doesn’t seek to lay blame or rake over the events of the past. Rather it demonstrates how important it is that we begin discussions with key organisations to develop a more harmonious community,’ acting HREOC Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr William Jonas said.

The report cited figures indicating that just over 25% of Muslims experienced some form of racism, abuse or violence at work.

Women and traditional dress
 
Wearing traditional Islamic dress appears to affect perceptions of professional ability.

‘Many Muslim women working in fields such as law and medicine felt that employers and colleagues saw them less intellectually capable or professionally committed compared with other staff if they wore traditional Islamic dress,’ the report said.

The report cited individual experiences: ‘When I started wearing the hijab at work people started talking to me very slowly and very loudly as if I could not understand because the veil was blocking my communication skills. They assume Muslim women don't have brains,’ said one respondent.

There is also an assumption on the part of some that the hijab is ‘dirty’. The report recounted the story of a Muslim midwife who wore a hijab into the operating theatre.

It was no different to doctors and nurses wearing bandanas and hats they brought from home to comply with theatre regulations of wearing clean close fitting caps. However, the nurse in charge told the midwife: ‘Get that dirty thing off your head!’

The nurse in charge was counselled by superiors and the hospital supported the midwife. But the midwife said it negatively affected her professional confidence. She now thinks that everyone thinks she is a ‘terrorist weirdo’ who doesn’t know what she is doing.

Service
 
According to the report, pressure not to wear the hijab at work was more apparent in service industries. A women working as a receptionist in a real estate agent was threatened with the sack if she wore her head scarf.

Some women relent to employer pressure to remove the hijab in order to get a job.One pharmacy assistant wears her hijab to work but takes it off at work.

Another woman who accepted a job as a hotel cleaner was told initially she could wear her hijab and long sleeves at work. But she was surprised when on the second day of work she was asked to remove her head scarf and sleeves and to wear a t-shirt.

She questioned her employer about why she hired her knowing her clothing requirements. The employer told her that if she wore the hijab she had to leave.

Men and women

 
However, discrimination is not confined to Muslim women wearing hijabs. The HREOC report also highlighted workplace discrimination, including racism and religious abuse, among Muslim women not wearing hijabs and Muslim men.

Muslim women and men reported the following problems when looking for work:
  • overseas qualifications or experience not recognised
  • local experience lacking
  • employer aversion to prospective employees with Arabic or Islamic names
  • fear that clients will react negatively, in particular to religious dress
  • the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed and ignorant
  • the uncertainty of  potential employees on Temporary Protection Visas.
When on the job, Muslim workers said restrictions placed on them included:
  • denying prayer breaks
  • no flexibility to accommodate holy days and religious festivals
  • limited client contac;
  • limited networking and team building for non-drinkers
  • pressure to Anglicise names.
But the news is not all bad with many other Muslims reporting their religious beliefs respected, such as employers providing the work conference room for prayers and providing soft drinks at Friday afternoon drinks.

For the full report go to the HREOC website.

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