The Brains beneath our Hijabs

The unfortunate reality of the world is that stereotypes are attached to every social category in existence. Women are fragile. Black people are criminals. Muslims are terrorists. Muslim women are oppressed and incompetent. East Asian people are intelligent. Of course, stereotypes are extremely narrow (and typically untrue) views, and they are frequently disproved and challenged, however Muslim women are facing a deeply concerning problem in modern Britain (as well as other parts of the world). We are being forced into minuscule cages of prejudice, which are proving to be unbelievably detrimental to our future employment prospects. 

According to the Casey Review (a thorough investigation into British opportunity and integration, commissioned by the Prime Minister) Muslim girls are “getting good grades at school but no decent employment opportunities”. This is extremely alarming, especially when the gap between educational success and occupational progression among Muslim women is so significant. It is clear that A*’s and first-class degrees are not alien notions to thousands of Muslim women across the world, however this unprecedented success does not translate into reality.

12.8% of all British Muslims are unemployed, and many of these individuals struggle to find jobs, due to evident employment barriers- most notably, the prejudiced reluctances of employers to hire Muslims. Muslim women in particular are victims of this form of received ideas. 65% of all unemployed British Muslims are female, and although this may be largely down to generational differences pertaining to cultural choices, a recent poll found that 25% of British employers would hesitate to hire a British Muslim woman, especially those who wear Hijabs- outward displays of faith [Independent]. But why is this the case?

Understandably, the recent proliferation in acts of terrorism committed by ‘Islamists’ has resulted in an increase of suspicion towards Muslim communities. Terrorism is not somehow an Islamic requirement- rather, it is the product of ignorance, poverty, and political instability (provoked by Western intervention in Muslim countries, but that’s a story for another day). Essentially, employers are not looking at the brains beneath our hijabs.

Part of the issue of female Muslim unemployment lies in the lack of positive role models in the media. Granted, things are gradually changing, and some television networks have cast Muslim women to play realistic Muslim characters, Sana from Skam being a noteworthy example. However, young Muslim girls still have very few role models to look up to. While other ethnic groups can look to intelligent fictional characters such as Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger for sources of inspiration, Muslim girls are very limited in media figures that they can relate to. Media representation is inexplicably important, as the media plays an integral role in the formation of the identities of young children, and children cannot be what they cannot see. 

In addition to this, the media plays an active role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Muslim women are rarely ever portrayed in a positive light; we are usually shown as submissive and oppressed victims of patriarchal suppression, or, on the flip-side, maniacal AK-47-wielding terrorists. Unfortunately, all this can make an employer think twice when he or she reviews the application of a woman wearing the Hijab…

But alas, we are not past all hope. Certain astonishing anomalies have proven to us that Muslim women are capable of greatness; we just need to try harder than others. Yvonne Ridley, Noor Tagouri, Yasmin and Dalia Mogahed- these are a handful of examples of unbelievably intelligent, proudly Muslim, women, who are making waves, forming a crucial part of our intellectual revolution. In conjunction with this, millions of ordinary Muslim students are amplifying these effects, by working ridiculously hard at school, and then proceeding to destroy preconceived notions held about us. We are forming the backbone of the revolution.

If you are a Muslim woman reading this article, I would like to congratulate you, simply for existing as you are. You have probably faced a range of multifaceted manifestations of societal oppression, and yet you have not given up. I pray that you never give up.

Back in Year 9, a supply teacher dogmatically accused me of plagiarising an essay about philosophy that I had written directly in front of his eyes. When I finally proved that I had written it myself (after he attempted to humiliate me in front of my class) he went on to express yet another bigoted view: “Your parents will find it difficult to find you a husband. You’ll be too clever for him”. I was appalled. This man, who was licensed to teach twelve and thirteen-year-olds, had degraded me so profoundly in a single passing statement. Contrary to what he may have thought, I do not exist in order to someday become a subjugated wife. I am not an accessory. I am (as Black Widow once put it) my own woman, first, last, and always. 

Although there is an alarming lack of positive Muslim role models for us in mainstream media, there is certainly no shortage of exceptional women in Islamic history. Take Khadijah (RA) for example- famously hailed as the ‘Mother of all Believers’. She was absolutely incredible. As well as being the first Muslim ever, she was also a tremendously wealthy and successful businesswoman. In fact, her esteemed social status attracted many marriage proposals, the majority of which she declined. She then proposed to Muhammad (SAW), after deeming him a worthy potential husband. With this in mind, I would like to put forth the idea that the ‘Mother of all Muslims’ was a feminist Muslim role model.

Ultimately, although there is still a long way to go before Muslim women collectively flourish across all occupational fields, there is hope for the future, and I am optimistic that one day, the primary stereotype attached to Muslim women will be ‘FIERCE and INTELLIGENT’. But until then, here’s to mighty Muslim women: may we know them, may we raise them, and may we be them.

Works Cited

Dame Louise Casey, (2016) The Casey Review. Retrieved from GOV.UK.

Siobhan Fention, (2016) 6 charts which show the employment barriers faced by British Muslims. Retrieved from The Independent.

Sadia Ahmed, 2017

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