Gendered Islamophobia in the Workplace: The Toll of Being Visibly-Muslim in India

Gendered Islamophobia is a Women’s Rights Issue

24-year-old Ghazala Ahmad, a final year student of Mass Communication at Aligarh Muslim University was accepted for the post of an anchor at a Delhi based Hindi news portal. Nearing the end of her job negotiations, the organization realized that she wore a Hijab – a headscarf that covered her hair and is rooted in the religious teachings of the Islamic faith.

“I hope you understand; I can’t allow myself to do this otherwise they will shut my news outlet.” said the person on the other side.

This issue evoked a social media stir, deeming it a targeted attack on the Muslim identity.

“I was very calm on the call but inside me, I kept screaming; ‘what has my religious identity got to do with a job?’. Why can’t I observe my faith at my workplace? This is big propaganda to stop Muslims from asserting their identities in this nation in any way” wrote Ghazala on her Twitter handle.

Ghazala’s rejection is part of a growing trend in India, where Muslims who ‘appear’ to be tied to their faith are denied opportunities. The headscarf for women or the skullcap and beard for men have long been considered as signifiers for not just Muslims, but also to indicate ‘terrorists and anti-nationals’ as has been attempted by Bollywood over the decades. To add to this, the Prime Minister’s remarks on ‘identify them with their clothes’ is an indication of how widely spread and accepted these notions have become in recent times.

Visibly looking and asserting an identity is a constitutional right enshrined in the Constitution.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution gives freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.

As India is spiralling down to majoritarian nationalism, Muslims are finding themselves cornered and more under the siege than ever before. India is home to around two hundred million Muslims. But despite the figures, they are in the minority making up only 20% of the Indian population. The growing gendered Islamophobia cannot be seen in isolation but has to be seen in association with governing bodies.

The systemic exclusion and the anti-Muslim narrative is only creating a fertile ground for discriminatory practice and violence at all levels of the institution. With the state repression and growing Islamophobia. young Muslims are finding it difficult to find a place and job opportunities.

According to the survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in India, Muslims are more likely than the Indian Population overall to live below the poverty line at the ratio of 31% to 26%. The growing vitriol towards the community is making it difficult for them to feel secure. They are not only struggling with job opportunities but also with issues like education and housing. According to the Sachar Committee report, only 8% of Urban Muslims belonged to the salaried group while 61% of Muslims were self-employed. This stresses the fact that the public sector discriminates more than the private sector.

When it comes to discrimination, Muslim women find themselves doubly discriminated against. First as a Muslim and then as a woman. What irks supremacists the most is a Muslim woman asserting her identity. A simple piece of cloth over the head of a Muslim woman becomes a tool to project everything that is wrong with Muslims and Islam.

Muslim women wearing the Hijab are seen as oppressed, helpless and victims of violence and sexism making them hyper-visible but simultaneously invisible. They face the burden of being questioned about their impartiality and neutrality based on their attire which makes it difficult for them to access equal opportunities. A headscarf not only comes as an indicator of their religion but is also assumed as a visible marker of their ideology.

Despite being overtly discussed in the media, Muslim women hardly feature as members of the media itself.

Their presence can often be seen around talking only on “Muslim issues” and never as experts or journalists talking on general topics.

The hijab issue also reflects a larger tussle about who gets to speaks for the nation and hence gets to claim the success of the nation. The abuse that hijabi women face is not just about their religious identity but has consequences for their life chances as well. Their bodies often become a site for hate crimes and points of contest.

The only Muslim women who escape the harmful net of gendered Islamophobia, get seen in the media and are accepted by society are the ones who shrug away from any sign of visible “Muslimness”. Muslim women who shun all religious emblems are the only ones celebrated. To be taken seriously, it is required of Muslim women to look a certain way, putting the burden of agency completely on their attire. This exposes not only a consumerist nature but also the deeply rooted objectification of women’s bodies.

With fewer visible Muslim women around, those who wear the hijab feel underrepresented in the elite circle. Hence Muslim women are dismissed as inferior and find themselves struggling through the paternalistic stigmatized exclusionist tendencies who need to be liberated from the chains and shackles that bind them.

Belonging at the margins of society without any facilitation or channel, more visibly Muslim women are finding themselves at the receiving end of the growing Islamophobia and the perils of it. They feel unsafe both at the hands of the liberal who finds it a responsibility to rationalize them with modernity and to the far right-wing which views them as objects of fascination to be subjugated if they ever raise their voices.

Gendered Islamophobia robs Muslim women of their agency and constrains them from getting equal opportunities.


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