Obsessing over niqabs ignores everyday Islamophobia in the workplace

Julia Rampen DiversityQ columnist

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman and a former financial journalist.

In this weeks column, Julia Rampen explores everyday Islamophobia in the workplace and considers ways that employers can be more inclusive toward this cohort of workers.

Statistically speaking, most British workers are very unlikely to ever sit next to a colleague who wears a niqab. There is no official figure for how many women in Britain cover their faces in public, but in comparable Western European countries, the number is in the hundreds, and a British niqab wearer herself estimated she was part of “0.001 per cent” of Britain’s three million Muslims. Boris Johnson’s article for The Telegraph, in which he compared women wearing the niqab to “bank robbers” was not just unpleasant, it was also not even relevant.

Muslim women disproportionally affected by Islamophobia

We are on firmer ground with statistics when it comes to the number of British Muslims who find themselves the targets of racist or Islamophobic attacks, thanks to the painstaking documentation of campaigning group Tell Mama. We know that in 2017 there were 1,201 verified incidences of Islamophobia – roughly three a day – and the number of “offline incidents”, ie. those happening on the street, rose 30 per cent compared to the previous year. They disproportionately affect Muslim women, who tend to be more visibly identifiable. Compared to the very small proportion of women who wear the niqab, there are many working women who wear the hijab – a headscarf not dissimilar in size or scope to the one sometimes sported by the Queen.

According to the Tell Mama figures, roughly one in ten of Islamophobic incidents happen at work. In one the group recorded, a Muslim woman was repeatedly harassed by a male colleague who called her hijab a “tea towel”. She did not report the abuse to her managers, fearing that doing so would only cause the abuse to increase. In another, a Muslim man tried to pray in a break room, in line with the commitment to pray five times a day. His colleague stopped him from doing so and then assaulted him when he reported the incident to his bosses. Despite the support of the on-duty manager, the man’s employer was told there was not enough evidence to uphold his complaint, and he ultimately felt forced to resign.

Other times, the abuse comes from an outsider, but could nevertheless affect how the victim feels at work. A teacher at an adult college was verbally abused about her religion by a student (it was not a theology lesson). Naveed Yasin, a surgeon who spent 48 hours treating the victims of the Manchester terror attack, was racially abused and called a “terrorist” when he was returning to the hospital after a break.

One woman I spoke to used to work in a high street pharmacy chain. “I was ready to serve a customer and she ended up walking away to another counter which I found very weird,” she recalled. “Afterwards I was told she didn’t want to be served by me because I wear the hijab and I am black.”

Tackling unintentional exclusion

Employers have an obligation to respond to hate crime in the workplace, and as these stories illustrate, simply telling workers not to be Islamophobic is not enough. Muslim employees need to be confident they will be taken seriously, or they are unlikely to risk reporting it in the first place. Give that a high proportion of Brits hold negative views about Islam, rather than leaving it up to individual managers, organisations would be better off creating a new channel of communication, such as a helpline.

All employers should have zero tolerance of Islamophobia in the workplace, just as they would racism of another kind. But the smartest employers will also realise there are gains to be had from making sure British Muslims feel not just safe, but included. There are small, everyday aspects of workplace culture that, while not malicious, make Muslim workers feel different to everyone else. “For me, the main thing has been unintentional exclusion,” a woman who wears the hijab and works in the media told me about her experience in the office. “I wouldn’t class it as Islamophobia. I think it’s just ignorance and a lack of being aware about being an inclusive workforce.”

Afterwork drinking culture

On one occasion, when she won a prize for the best idea of the week, her manager presented her with a bottle of wine in front of all her colleagues. When she explained she couldn’t drink it, she didn’t receive an alternative present. During Ramadan, the month of fasting observed by Muslims, no one thought to move the office snack box away from her desk. Then there’s the fact that all the socialising in her industry happens at the pub. “No one bothers to think that Muslims may feel uncomfortable going there or that it may be more inclusive to have another social activity other than drinking,” she said.

Another hijab-wearing Muslim woman, who has worked in a variety of jobs, found that because she was known as a non-drinker, she would simply not get an invitation to after-work social events. “I have tried to invite work colleagues to events that don’t involve mainly drinking but I don’t get much interest back,” she said. In a retail job, her manager told her the headscarf was “fine” but it needed to look “professional”. Having only just left high school, she didn’t feel confident enough to ask the manager what exactly she meant.

For this woman, though, the main issue throughout her career has been fielding questions from colleagues. “I am constantly asked is why Muslims are not protesting against terrorism or that we are not doing it enough,” she said. “This becomes a very difficult thing to deal with and results in me trying to explain that I am not responsible for other people’s actions, Muslims do protest and disagree, and most of all my religion is against all acts of terrorism.” In some cases, the colleagues are asking out of “genuine curiosity”; on other occasions, “I have felt cornered”.

Inclusive working cultures

Brits with Muslim friends are more likely to have positive views about their religion. If employers are serious about stopping Islamophobia, they should create a working culture where people of different faiths or none feel comfortable. Employers could guard against discrimination that bars Muslims from the workplace by asking for blind CVs, which have other benefits as well. And then they should make sure there are opportunities for colleagues to socialise that don’t involve spending half your salary on a round, downing a Jaegerbomb, and going outside to throw up. After all, British Muslims are not the only ones clutching lime and sodas – so, too, are the pregnant women, the commuters with a long drive home, the ex-alcoholics, the health freaks and the quarter of young people who don’t drink. For all that newspapers love a divisive headline, British Muslims and non-Muslims have more in common than Boris Johnson thinks.

See also: Why ITN’s decision to admit its BAME pay gap was smarter than it looks