Bradford sales and marketing executive Siyama Aslam describes her struggles over whether or not to cover her head – including a chat with a manager who thought she was talking about hair gel
Last Friday the Guardian ran an article about the job crisis faced by ethnic minority women. It cited a report from MPs stating that ethnic minority women are twice as likely to be unemployed as their English counterparts.
Many are also Anglicising names and, removing hijabs in order to gain access to the job market. Labour MP David Lammy, who chairs the all-party group on the issue was quoted as saying:
It is staggering that in 21st Century Britain there are women who felt they had to remove their hijab or change their name just to be able to compete on the same terms as other candidates when looking for jobs.
Reading the article, I felt as though the dilemma I have been grappling with over the past year had had official statistics and language put against it. After the closure of my business, and a lot of soul searching, I decided about six months ago to re-enter the job market. Decision made, I hit my next dilemma – to hijab or not to hijab.
I started wearing the hijab eleven years ago. At the time I deliberated for a good few years before taking the plunge. The reason for my deliberation was quite simple – I worked in a corporate environment as an account director looking after my firm’s key partnerships in London. Although personally I had decided that I wanted to adopt the hijab, I was worried that professionally it would become a stumbling block on my career path, which to date I had been traversing with some speed. I wasn’t quite sure how people in my work environment would relate to the transformation of me, from the outgoing girl who fitted in, to a hijab-clad Muslim, especially in a post 9/11 environment.
My journey towards hijab began when I finally moved past all my agnostic swinging of, “Yes I believe”, “No I don’t” and then back again. The eureka moment came, funnily enough, when reading about the depiction of embryology in the Qur’an. The Arabic word used to describe the embryo in its early stages is ‘alaqah’, meaning a leech like clot. Scientific advances now illustrate how the embryo initially does indeed act like a leech, clinging to the mother’s uterus and obtaining nutrients from her blood. From this revelation I made the jump to the hijab.
The Qur’an does not specifically ask women to cover their head; rather it tells them to draw their garments over their bosoms. In pre-Islamic Arabia women, as well as men, covered their heads and the current form of hijab is drawn both from this inference as well as the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The cultural and personal interpretations vary. In my hijab I cover my hair and body but not my face, others wear niqab which exposes only the eyes, while others wear the head-to-toe covering called the burka. Hijab in Islamic culture is closely related to modesty. Modest dressing applies not only to women but also to men who, in addition, are told to lower their gazes. The idea that the hijab moves the gaze from the external to the internal, thus making the beauty of the inner self the most important focus, was one that appealed strongly to me.
Initially I kept telling myself that I would wear the hijab when I was better at doing x or when I had achieved y – but eventually the realisation dawned that spiritual nirvana was a long way off. Then I decided that, as a baby was part of my not too distant future planning, I would start wearing the hijab after I had had said baby and became a stay-at-home mum. However, this made me feel I was taking the easy way out. I questioned myself as to whether I should really wear the hijab if I was only prepared to do so when it was easy for me.
The much publicised word ‘jihad’, with its current connotations of terrorism, does not actually mean holy war. The lexical meaning is struggle; or rather struggle in the path of God. There are two different types of jihad in Islam – the lesser jihad is the one that is undertaken in battle, while the greater jihad is the one that is undertaken against one’s own self. I felt that having made the decision to wear the hijab it did not say much for, either me as a person or, my commitment to the principle if I wasn’t even prepared to endure a few hurdles career-wise.
I took the plunge by asking my manager if he would have an issue if I started to cover my hair – his initial response still brings a smile to my face – “What with? Gel?” Before starting to wear the hijab I spent a week visiting clients and explaining that the next time they saw me I would be wearing a scarf and, as we were post 9/11, there would be no bomb under it! What I found most surprising was that the majority of people assumed I was about to get married. In actual fact I had been married for four years and the decision to don a scarf was completely personal. It did not seem to occur to people that I may be taking this step of my own volition. The other factor I had completely overlooked was that here was a whole new shopping opportunity!
Eleven years later my life came full circle – having struggled with, and deliberated over, the decision to wear the hijab, I now contemplated taking it off. Having decided to work on a freelance basis in sales and marketing, despite my experience, I couldn’t close my eyes to the fact that I had been out of the corporate arena for quite a while. My hijab began to weigh heavy on my head.
I couldn’t quite forget a few post-hijab meetings, small in number but significant in my head, where people I had met with a colleague would talk only to my colleague. I would have to muscle in and they would realise halfway through the meeting that I was the one with the required expertise. One particular gentleman spent the entire meeting talking to a point slightly to one side of my head, which I found most disconcerting.
My paranoia intensified when upon ringing a prominent Muslim Asian businessman in Bradford, I was told:
Like my daughters, although articulate and confident, you’re in hijab and a lot of people don’t like that. You can forget the Asian community when it comes to sales and marketing, and given your hijab the corporates in the area won’t touch you with a bargepole.
A number of friends, who I knew had my best interests at heart, told me to ditch the hijab. One said:
The problem is they’ll spend the first forty minutes of the meeting getting over the way you look, and the last twenty in listening, by which time you’ll have missed the boat.
Although completely unrelated, I couldn’t help but think of the recent congratulations I had been given on my excellent English by a door-to-door sales man.
After a lot of deliberating, and a fair amount of time standing in front of the mirror thinking, ‘Well actually I do look nicer without it’, I decided to keep the status quo. In essence my hijab and I are in a long term relationship, which is about love rather than convenience. Although my relationship with God is not summed up by a piece of cloth on my head, neither as a person am I. Removing the hijab, I feel, would be throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Having been so very close to it myself, I can understand and sympathise with the women who have made the decision to remove their hijabs – because there but for the grace of God. I certainly cannot say, hand on heart, that if the economics of my situation became too pressing, I would never do the same.
Syima Aslam (@SyimaAslam) is a freelance sales and marketing professional based in Bradford. She also blogs about Islam, feminism, culture and parenting.
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