Wearing hijab in the workplace

What is the problem with wearing hijab in the workplace? The answer is fear.

Fear that you will be judged.

Fear that you will be thought less of

Fear that you are the unknowable other

Fear that there is nothing in common

And Fear that there never will be.

Having worn the hijab since the age of 14, it is as much a part of me as my skin. And I am conscious of the fact that I am judged on both. We live in a society that is continuously visually stimulated, visually educated and visually influenced. This all leads to visual impairment of a sort. The sort that uses ignorance and assumptions to instil fear without information.

I started working in a professional environment in an era where the words terrorism and Islam were synonymous. Where Osama bin Laden was the worst of mankind and the posterchild of Islam. I started in an environment where people were too polite to say anything with words but spoke volumes with their eyes. And I built my resilience through sheer stubbornness of will to prove them wrong.

And when I committed myself to my work, when I spoke to my colleagues with an open mind and an open heart, when I engaged in genuine heartfelt conversations, we realised we were not so different after all. Those first few colleagues that became friends were the support network that made me realise that once you gain experience in your field, you don’t even worry about looking different. You just let your experience and confidence do the talking.

Once I was requested via email to meet a vendor. They wanted to sell me some software. On the day, I entered the room a little early and began pouring water out for everyone. The vendors, a group of 3 men, walked into the room and said hello and then paused. I realised they thought I was the office assistant and were waiting for me to leave. So, I sat down, folded my arms and looked them in the eye. They hesitantly asked if I was Shafeen. Yes, I am. I am the person you’ve come to sell your product to!

Today, I don’t worry about fitting in or impressing anyone except myself. I am not in competition with anyone but my own personal best. But this has come with spiritual wisdom. I can see how a new hijabi can find it scary to enter the workforce and try to fit in and form work relationships with colleagues.

So here are some ways that helped me, and my friends and I hope they help you.

Firstly, have faith in God. People ask me all the time why I wear hijab. And in the 20 years I have been wearing it, the answer has changed as I have grown in my spirituality. When I first put it on, I had no idea what it meant. It was part of my school uniform. As a teenager it became the thing that made boys shy away from me or call me names. As a young woman it became the source of both consternation and solace when Islam shifted into mainstream scrutiny. I knew people were looking but I also knew my fellow Muslims were sending smiles my way. And now. Now I know just how temporal this life is. Now I know that my aim in life is to gain closeness to God. Not just to please him, not just to get up enough points to get into heaven. But to get as close to that source of light and knowledge as I can. And the best way I can do that is to wear hijab. To wear this shield that reminds me of who I am, what I represent and how I can and should behave. I wear hijab because it imbues me with kindness, empathy and intelligence.

Have faith in God but tie your camel – Once the Prophet was passing a man who dismounted his camel and began walking away. When asked why he said he had faith in God to take care of his camel. To which our beloved prophet replied. Have faith in god but tie your camel. You are an intelligent woman. You have been hired because of your skills, not looks. Your hijab doesn’t decrease your IQ. Use your acumen to show your colleagues just how intelligent and able you are. There will always be that well-meaning advice from career counsellors or advisors that your LinkedIn picture with a hijab might (potentially) hinder your chances in progression. To them you say – I don’t think so. I know my worth and I have faith in God and myself. I believe it is a form of dawah to be the best in your field.

Secondly, change behaviours not attitudes. People are bombarded with negative perceptions of Muslims in media all the time. When you show them your intelligence, your humour, your fashion sense, your culture, your kindness your confidence – you show them that their behaviour, their reluctance to engage, their avoidance of you is unacceptable and unnecessary and they will change the way they behave. If you confront and attack their attitude, it will only result in them holding on more tightly to their bigoted beliefs. You cannot change a person’s beliefs. But you can change how they behave by modelling what good behaviour looks like.

Never ever think or utter the words ‘what will people say?’ again – People are a varied lot. Some look at the hijab and assume you are more religious than others, some look at it and assume you are oppressed, some look at it and assume you represent all Muslims. You know what – it doesn’t matter. It does not matter what people think, say or do. What matters is you and your connection with God that is represented in your hijab. That is a scared bond between you and your creator that you carry with you everywhere and no one can take that away from you.

Thirdly, own your own space. The modest fashion industry has come such a long way. Growing up, I remember frantically buying clothes during winter because I knew that for the 3 or 4 months of summer I would not be able to find anything suitable to wear. This is no longer the case. Hijab can be your biggest accessory and I know my outfits are often formulated around the hijab I feel like wearing that day – like this one. My power hijab. There are advantages of being unique. Recently, I was in Coffs harbour which has a small population of Muslims. We looked online, found where Jummah was being held, and participated at the small but central community hall. As we walked out we noticed two non-muslims approaching from the other way, in front of us were two Muslims who averted their gaze and hurried past. No interaction took place. As we walked by, I met their gaze and said Hello with a smile. And they stopped, smiled and said hello back. And then they asked what was happening? why? How often are the prayers? What do the prayers mean? – Everyone has a hunger to know more – it just presents itself in different ways. If you own your own space with confidence, others will not only respect it but benefit from it.

And finally, lead with kindness. I have had people on either extreme, asking questions super carefully and on the other hand being aggressive and sometimes downright ignorant. Wearing the hijab does put a spotlight on you and make others want to engage you in conversation about it and Islam. I’ve never shied away from these conversations because I find them fascinating. But it is not your job to answer any and all questions simply because you wear the hijab. If you don’t feel like it. Don’t engage. Direct them to google or the nearest mosque but with kindness.

So, what is the problem with wearing hijab in the workplace? It is people’s attitudes and behaviours that grow out of fear. Including your own. And that’s the easiest one to address.

I believe that much of how I am perceived in the workplace depends on how I see myself. As a Muslim, as a woman, as a professional and as a passionate individual eager to learn and contribute. A perception of self that is built on a now unshakeable sense of self-worth that took years to build thread by thread into the fabric of my identity with love, care, devotion and support from within myself, my friends, family and colleagues.

So, if you want to wear the hijab full time or part time, fully covered or half. You do you. Don’t worry about what the other people will think, or what your boss will say.

It can be hard. But you are not alone. You will be walking in the path of many before you and you will light the way for many after you.

Actions are but by intention and you will have that but which you intend. So, if your intention is to wear the hijab to please Allah swt alone and gain closeness with him then that it what you will get. In this life or the next. In some form or another. Use that knowledge as your secret weapon and it will get you through anything. Even what the people will say.

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