Islamophobia In The Indian Workplace: A Tale Of 3 Muslim WomenNUZHAT KHAN 14 Jul 2023 13 min read Share
In a country where Islamophobia has intensified, three Indian Muslim women describe their encounters with Delhi-based private firms where they were chastised, humiliated, and pressured to disown their religious identity. Harassed over wearing the hijab, references to Pakistan, their professionalism questioned, one could not last more than seven months, and another decided against joining.
Representative Image/ MICROSOFT DESIGNER
Delhi: In January 2022, S, a 23-year-old Muslim woman from Burdwan, West Bengal, moved to Delhi to work in a content writing service, eager to make a go of her new life as an independent woman living and working in the nation’s capital.
After her father passed away a few years ago, S’s mother supported her decision to go and work in Delhi, but things in her new office unfolded very differently from what she had expected her first job to be like.
“Starting, it was casual sexism, such as questions like if I was into men and compliments about how appealing I looked in a particular dress. This slowly grew into sexism and Islamophobia,” S told Article 14, referring to the CEO, a man in his mid-forties.
“The CEO occasionally commented on how Muslims are intolerant and how he hoped I was different,” she said.
Three months after joining, S said she was told “not to wear her religion on her sleeve”.
At a meeting, the CEO asked S what if they were at an afterparty of a business meeting and someone offered her a glass of wine then would she accept it because it would be impolite to decline?
One day in July, when S could not immediately respond to the management, consisting of the CEO and two other middle-aged men, regarding work, they asked her if she had gone to Pakistan.
S quit seven months after joining.
“Being a single child, I put myself out there to get employed and earn,” said S. “This also became the first time in my life I experienced first-hand Islamophobia.”
Religious Discrimination In Private Firms
Article 16 of the Indian Constitution ensures equality of opportunity in public employment. The law mandates that no prospective employee can be discriminated against due to gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. But there is no similar legal provision for employees in the private sector.
Article 16 was enforceable only against the state and not private employers, but certain basic principles of labour rights like fair wage, protection against sexual harassment, gratuity, provident fund and other provisions were uniformly applicable to the private sector, said Ashay Kaushik, a Delhi-based lawyer who practices in the Supreme Court.
“While the gamut of rights available to public sector employees is wide-ranging and guaranteed under the Constitution, the private sector employees must largely rely on the extant labour laws,” said Kaushik. “There is nothing akin to Article 16 which would guarantee employees a right not to be discriminated against as far as the private sector is concerned.”The ‘India Discrimination Report 2022’ by Oxfam India in New Delhi said lower employment for urban Muslims attributes 68.3% to discrimination in 2019-20. The report shows that discrimination accounted for only 59% of the total employment gap in 2004-05, which has increased significantly by nine percentage points.
“Non-Muslims are earning 49% more than Muslims in regular employment. Self-employed non-Muslims earn Rs 15,878 on average while self-employed Muslims earn Rs 11,421 despite the overrepresentation of Muslims in urban self-employment,” the report said.
In 2015, an Economic Times Intelligence Group stated that among the BSE 500 companies, only 2.67% of executives were Muslims.
Research by LedBy Foundation, a leadership incubator for Indian Muslim women developed at Harvard University, found a hiring bias against Muslim women for entry-level positions. The report said that for every call back a Muslim woman gets, a Hindu woman gets two.
“Muslim women are stereotyped as being imprisoned in their homes by purdah, therefore professionally incapacitated. This image plays in the mind of employers who often subject Muslim women candidates to hostile questions in the interview and selection process,” said Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and author of Muslim Women Speak published in 2022.
“Often, the employers might simply have decided not to employ Muslims because of bigotry and Islamophobia. Even when they are selected, co-workers might subject them to subtle discrimination or microaggressions which makes the workplace hostile. Lack of dignity and low salaries keep much lower class and lower-middle class Muslim women from wage work because it is not considered worth their time,” said Jamil.Muslims, the largest minority in India, 14% of 1.4 billion people, are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the Indian workforce. (Here, here and here). Muslim women in India are among the poorest educationally disenfranchised, economically vulnerable, and politically marginalised groups.
In the wave of Hindu majoritarianism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014, state and non-state actors have targeted Muslim women—the Karnataka government—under the BJP from July 2019 to May 2023—banned the wearing of hijabs in school, Hindu extremists organised an online auction of Muslim women.
"It is no exaggeration to say that Muslims live in fear today,” said Ambreen Agha, associate professor of political science at the O.P. Jindal Global University based in Haryana.
“The first casualty of this fear is the women of the community who then face double challenges in a highly communal political setting like this: firstly, the blatant discrimination outside and secondly, the struggle to defend their rights—as Muslim women—existing inside,” she said.
Islamophobia At Work
S recalled that during the Nupur Sharma controversy, when the BJP spokesperson made some distasteful remarks about the Prophet Mohammad, the CEO called her to his office, asking her what she thought about this matter.
S said that she told him it was wrong for someone to talk like that, and he replied that she was on the side of Muslims because she was a Muslim.
When it was Eid-Al-Adha, S was subjected to relentless questioning on animal sacrifice saying wasn’t it cruel to kill animals and why Muslims could not celebrate differently and stop the killing of so many animals.
When S, who had been thinking about wearing a hijab for a long time, wore one to the office, it made things much worse for her.
“They passed comments such as, ‘Are you also inspired by what is happening in Karnataka?’ They said, ‘Even listening to music and listening to music is haram in Islam, but you do it, then why are you stuck on wearing the hijab but not doing the other things.’ I was told to stop wearing the hijab in the office because it didn’t give a professional vibe,” said S.“Following that incident, the management grew cold towards me. I was not called to the meetings. I wasn’t allotted work,” she said.
S said she complained to the HR representative, but the woman in her thirties did not listen to her complaint and was complicit in the harassment.
At the time of the Pakistan comment, S said the woman was sitting there and laughing.
S is now preparing for her PhD examination.
There Is Also Sexism
India’s female labour force participation rate (FLPR), known as “historically low”, fell from 31% in 2021 to 23% in 2000, according to World Bank data published in April 2023.
Merely 15% of Muslim women participated in the job market, the least among Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian women, according to the 2011 All India Census Report.
Nousheen Khan, the human resources director of a Hyderabad-based multinational software company, said she had not experienced discrimination because of her religious identity. Still, she had encountered very few Muslim professionals.
“It has been more than 15 years of my career. I have never worked with a Muslim woman in a leadership position,” said Khan. “I have seen very few applications from Muslim women candidates.”
Khan said there could be multiple reasons: the percentage of Muslim graduates is less due to social and cultural reasons.
“I think the talent pool is very limited. It is possible that qualified Muslim women do not enter the workforce or drop out due to common reasons such as marriage and childcare, among others,” she said. R, an analyst in a global IT services and consultancy company in New Delhi, spoke of a similar experience as Nousheen Khan, where she did not feel Islamophobia but encountered few other Muslim women.
“I am the only Muslim woman in a team of 70 people. I believe there would not be more than two Muslim women in the office,” said R. “I have not faced any discrimination because I am a Muslim. However, I have faced discrimination because I am a woman. My peers/manager assumed I could not handle a position of responsibility because I am a woman.”
“No one says it upfront, but they make subtle, indirect statements,” she said.
Access to Higher Education & Internal Factors
According to a report published in 2020 by the National Statistical Office (NSO), Muslim women have the lowest literacy rate among women of all religious groups. Only 1.90% of Muslim women reach pre-university, and 0.14% attain technical education.
“There is a lot of eagerness and desire among Muslim girls to study and go for higher studies, but because of the prevalent economic condition coupled with social realities, how many of them get the opportunity to fulfil their dream of higher education, that remains a question,” said Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. “As per the Sachar committee report (2005), only 4 out of 100 Muslims become graduates. We don’t even know how many of these four are women. It is not a surprise that overall, you don’t find many women, particularly Muslim women, in good positions,” Soman added.
Muslims have been experiencing stagnant economic growth despite India’s status as the fastest-growing large economy.
“Poverty is one of the biggest hindrances in getting an education where the private sector in the educational sector is mushrooming. Further, we need to generate a database, such as the number of women in the formal sector, educational institutes, and informal sector,” said Sabiha Husain, former director of the Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. “Unless a database exists, we cannot intervene in policy making.”
“We need to look at it from micro and macro perspectives,” she said. “On a macro level, we only had one fellowship for Muslims. Now even that is discontinued. Only if we provide more scholarships and programmes can we expect more Muslim women in the workforce. Secondly, on a micro level, the Muslim community must look at issues, such as misinterpretation of religion coupled with patriarchy.”
An Interview In Delhi
In December 2022, F, a 21-year-old from Lucknow who works in customer relationship management, travelled to New Delhi when she was selected for a global company's final interview round.
When the company's HR contacted her, F said she insisted on knowing whether she wore “Western formal clothes”.
“The moment I entered the interview chamber, HR first noticed my scarf [hijab],” she said. During the interview with a woman in her forties and a man in his thirties, the conversation shifted from work to F’s religion.
F said they asked, considering Muslims have orthodox families, her family might not allow her to come to Delhi, and how she would handle it. They asked her why she needed to wear a hijab, a symbol of oppression, and told her about a Muslim woman who used to cover herself, but now she wore Western outfits. They called the person to show her attire.
F said they asked her, "Are you confident enough to get out of that boundation?"
“I was fine with it because I would much rather take questions than judgmental glances,” she said.
“At the end of it, they said I’ll have to take off the hijab. When I said no, they said my pay would be increased by 20% if I did it, which is a lot. When I disagreed, apologised, and got ready to leave the room, the HR told me, ‘better luck finding a job with that [hijab] wrapped around your head.’”
F believes they were not serious about the 20% increase, only testing her faith.
F said her problem is with people assuming that because she wears the symbol of her faith, she may be unable to function as an independent woman or be less productive than non-Muslim women.
F said she only spoke of the interview to her father because she was embarrassed about it, particularly the remark about finding a job with a hijab wrapped around her head.
In February 2023, F started work at a home accessories store in Gurgaon.
“My colleagues and I were joking around about the pay and expenses when I said if you all are asking for an increment, then I, too, should ask. It was nothing serious, but then one of them said I should be grateful they were even paying my community. I should not demand more,” she said. “This is when I earn more than him. My other colleagues immediately confronted him on that,” she said.
F complained about what her colleague said to the managing director, a man in his forties, but they did nothing.
An Internship In Delhi
H, a 22-year-old Muslim woman, joined a Delhi-based global ed-tech company as a marketing intern in November 2022.
Around a month into her joining, H said she was having lunch with three of her colleagues from the marketing department. They were talking about the wedding of one of their colleagues when they asked H about Muslim wedding rituals.
“I tried explaining to them about nikah [marriage] and the walima [reception] when one of them asked me if we say qubool hai [I accept] three times in our weddings. At that moment, one of them laughingly remarked how Muslims also say talaq three times to end their marriages,” she said.
When H told her colleague—a 26-year-old female full-time employee—that what she said was offensive, the three women started laughing.
“They started telling me that they have watched a lot of Pakistani serials and like them. They were saying good things about Pakistan. Why would you think I would like to hear that about Pakistan and prefer Pakistani shows,” she said.
Two months later, H said the 26-year-old woman wanted to get a gharara (a flowing suit) stitched and asked if she knew anything about the dress because she had seen many Pakistanis wearing it on shows and social media. “I asked her how I would know what people in Pakistan wear,” said H.
When The Kerala Story, a movie about Hindu women in Kerala converting to Islam and joining the terrorist group ISIS, H said that another employee, a woman in her early 30s, kept telling her how traumatising it was for her to watch the movie.
Widely panned as Islamophobic, the Supreme Court told the filmmakers to add a disclaimer to the film saying it was a fictionalised account and “there is no authenticated data” to support their figure of conversions,
“She made conscious attempts to stay around me when she talked about her experience of watching the movie. She was going on and on about how she felt so bad about the girls, about how traumatised she was,” said H. “It was as if she wanted me to feel guilty about something. I did not understand it.” H, whose internship ended in May 2023, did not complain to HR.
“I felt like no one would listen to me. The company's environment was good overall, but these few people made micro-aggressions against me. The HR was also good, but for some reason, I did not have the guts to complain about it,” said H. “I was scared that no one would side with me, and it would only create a scene. I did not want that.”
H, who is leaving for her master’s in the United States this year, said she “overall had a good work experience, but the Islamophobia “scared” her.
(Nuzhat Khan is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)
In a country where Islamophobia has intensified, three Indian Muslim women describe their encounters with Delhi-based private firms where they were chastised, humiliated, and pressured to disown their religious identity. Harassed over wearing the hijab, references to Pakistan, their...