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Women who wear hijab in the workplace may have to deal with workmates who stereotype them and make incorrect assumptions that can take away their agency.

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Besides her skills, qualifications and expertise, Muna Saleh has observed an additional factor that people evaluate when determining her “professionalism” – her hijab.

Wearing hijab is a personal religious decision, but many Muslim women in Canada are facing undue professional consequences for exercising their right to wear what they choose.

“For some people, hijab is inherently seen as unprofessional just by itself,” says Dr. Saleh, who is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University of Edmonton.

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Dr. Saleh says that women who wear hijab are stereotyped as being “inherently oppressed, potentially not intelligent or capable enough to make an informed and rational decision about her body.”

Shefaly Gunjal is the manager of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at Citizen Relations, a global communications and PR firm. She notes that an added challenge for Muslim women who wear hijab is that they are often the only visibly Muslim person in their workplace. Because of this, they may experience heightened scrutiny.

“You kind of become the beacon of the religion, where people are bringing all of their assumptions about Muslims to you,” she says. “It can be kind of overwhelming.”

Ms. Gunjal says that visibly Muslim women in the workplace may experience a “lack of power and privilege” at the intersection of race, gender and religion. This, she says, is accompanied by incorrect assumptions that take away agency.

“I can tell you from personal experience that the hijab is very much a choice that I made and that I celebrated for myself, and I was really excited about it,” she says.

Legislative barriers

The challenges of navigating the workplace as a woman in hijab are further complicated in Quebec, where hijab is explicitly banned in certain professions. The ongoing imposition of secularism legislation known as Bill 21 prevents those in many public sector jobs from wearing religious symbols.

In 2021, Quebec elementary school teacher Fatemeh Anvari was removed from her position because she wore hijab. The case was indicative of the broader issues impacting the careers of Muslim women in Quebec.

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“In Canada, when a woman decides that she’s ready and she wants to wear a hijab, she can’t just think about the religious ramifications,” says Lina El Bakir, a Quebec-based advocacy officer with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). “She also has to think about the opportunity cost in her career, her dreams, her aspirations. [Also] her capacity to withstand discrimination in the streets and in accessing services.”

NCCM has been working on a legal challenge alongside the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), arguing that the bill is unconstitutional. As the matter unfolds in the courts, Ms. El Bakir says they’ve heard from hijab-wearing women whose potential career opportunities have been stalled. In some cases, she says women are forced to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihoods.

“We’ve had testimonies from students in universities studying education who decide to remove the hijab because they feel like they can’t be themselves while teaching,” Ms. El Bakir says. “They have to make this heart-wrenching decision, of compromising part of your identity in order to fit in a society that discriminates against you.”

In Quebec, the workplace barriers faced by visibly Muslim women are written into law. But Ms. El Bakir stresses that the issue extends beyond the province’s borders.

“There are families that have left Quebec thinking that Ontario would be safer, or other provinces, but still the discrimination happens,” she says. “It’s important to know that yes, Quebec has Bill 21, but unfortunately Islamophobia doesn’t know any boundaries.”

Disrupting expectations

When it comes to making workplaces more inclusive for Muslim women or others marginalized people, Ms. Gunjal says that efforts need to extend beyond “surface-level” change.

In past experiences working in EDI, she says she was often asked questions about her experience that felt performative. In her current role, however, she says she feels like she’s having conversations that come from a genuine desire to create a safe and welcoming workplace.

“[When] looking at your culture as an organization, it’s not just about having representation or diversity,” Ms. Gunjal says. “It’s about creating an environment where people of diverse backgrounds feel comfortable being themselves.”

For Dr. Saleh, becoming comfortable in her professional appearance has been a process. She says that due to the assumptions she faced as a visibly Muslim woman, she often found herself compensating by trying to appear especially put together.

“You’re very hyperconscious of how you look, how you present yourself and what that might read to other people,” she says. “All of those things are constantly being negotiated.”

She notes that there is a very “fixed and static notion of what counts as professional and what looks professional,” and she has sometimes internalized those expectations. It’s something she is working to disrupt.

“For me, a big part of what I’ve been trying to undo is this notion that I have to be very, you know, crisp,” she says. “You don’t want to be seen as being ‘less than’ in any way. I’m ashamed to say that when I first started, I was really conscious of that.”

Now, teaching in a university setting, Dr. Saleh says she’s reached a point where she feels comfortable wearing jeans to work.

“That’s been progress for me,” she says. “It’s been a process of saying, hey, the way that you look or dress – whatever these static conceptions of professional attire are – do not give an indication of how well you can do your job.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I left a job on bad terms. I am in the process of applying and interviewing for new positions, but how should I handle my job search? I worked for my former employer for 8 years and I am good at what I do, but I do not believe that I will get a good reference from them. And I’m wondering how much to disclose in interviews about my former employer.

We asked Crystal Henrickson, career & leadership coach at Talent Collective in Vancouver, BC., to field this one:

Good for you for knowing your skills and your value as an employee as you search for a job. Your ability to speak clearly about those skills and articulate how you would apply them to solve problems facing your potential employer can help guide interviews towards the future instead of the past.

Unfortunately, no amount of future focusing can prevent the dreaded, ‘Why did you leave your past role?’ question. When it is asked, it is best to answer directly without dwelling too much on details, while shifting focus towards what you are seeking in a new role.

An example script:

While the work allowed me to exercise [specific skills], I recognized that [‘the direction of the organization’ or ‘the culture’ or ‘a sense of belonging,’ etc.] were misaligned with my [‘values’ or ‘career goals’]. In my next role, I’m looking for an environment where I can use my [specific skills] and work with teammates who value [specific values or specific characteristics of culture] in achieving [specific outcomes in the role/organization].

Jot down specifics, customize the script and practice saying your response out loud. Aim for having a neutral-to-positive tone.

The best references are people who can speak to your abilities, working style and personality. Consider expanding your scope of potential references from your direct manager to others such as peers from your own or other teams, former managers who moved to other organizations, interdisciplinary workgroups, former clients or customers.

Also consider external relationships who could provide insights on how you are as a teammate, how you navigate conflict or manage stress. Some examples include volunteer roles, committees and sports teams.

Wishing you the best of luck in your job search!

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