Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2012


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Rise and Shine  

She sits in the waiting room of the large office with impressive hangings on the wall. The other applicants for the position are also waiting somewhat nervously, but this is where the similarity ends. She adjusts her scarf and hopes that it looks professional enough together with her neatly pleated black skirt, smart shirt and jacket. She still feels somewhat out of place and can see the other applicants assessing her from the corner of their eyes, wondering  ‘What on earth is she doing here? She can’t possibly be applying for this position too?’

The receptionist looks askance at her, frowns, and tilts her head slightly while looking at the muted colours of her hijab.

‘Are you here to pick something up?’

‘No’, she replies ‘I’m here to apply for the legal assistant position.’

For young, well educated, practising Muslim women, this is a common reaction in Australia. The hijab is still mainly associated with a low socio-economic, migrant background. The typical first response in the more affluent areas of Australia is to speak slowly, carefully, and in a slightly annoyed tone, because it’s assumed that the woman in the hijab has poor English, will be difficult to deal with and take up valuable time.

Muslim women need to be smart and savvy, almost aggressively self-confident in order to overcome what - in employment terms - can be considered as a stigma, an indication that the new employee comes with ‘baggage’. Hijabs do not fit a sexy corporate image; they give an indication that the  wearer is being employed to cater specifically for a multicultural client base.

It is not just at the job application stage, however, that Muslim women have issues to confront. Within their own migrant Muslim communities, the common cultural understanding is that a woman’s first priority is to stay at home, caring for the children and ensuring the comfort and wellbeing of her husband. Traditionally, a Muslim man is considered strong when he has control over his wife and kids, an image that is hard to maintain if his wife is also working, and especially if her job is ‘better’ than his.

However, the reality is that Muslim women are entering university and professional life at a faster rate than Muslim men. Partly because of a conservative culture and outlook that monitors females more closely than boys, many girls soon see that the best way for them to gain independence and control over their lives is to acquire a solid education. This is often in contrast with their brothers who party or  ‘muck around’ with their friends in town, at the movies, or at places more likely to get them into trouble. Particularly in the Arabic-speaking communities, little boys are frequently more spoilt than girls, growing into Muslim men who often appear more concerned with image than substance, with looking good, and appearing strong and in control, especially in front of their mates. Their bookish peers who stay at home and study hard may be secretly admired, but don’t have the same kudos as their ‘chest beating’ cousins.

Yet, the control and independence that young educated Muslim women are seeking comes at a price. Men with equal or higher levels of education are hard to find in their respective ethnic communities, and therefore marriage partners are more difficult to find. A Muslim man with less education may forbid his very capable wife from seeking work outside the home, or the final alternative –an ‘import’ from the parents’ home country—is likely to have even more traditional views on the role of women. This phenomenon is also happening in Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA.

But back to the office interview! The difficulties don’t stop there. Having made it into the first round of interviews, small businesses – which represent the largest section of employers in the country – are unlikely to employ our young Muslim woman. Why? They worry about the potential impact of 30 days fasting on their new employee, the requirement to pray at work; they worry that she won’t socialise with the rest of the staff because she won’t drink alcohol; they worry that she’ll focus on the husband and his needs … and on and on it goes.

 As a result, the vast majority of Muslim women in Australia are employed through government and large corporations that can more easily accommodate their specific needs, or family businesses where the male is still in control.

This means that the educated Muslim woman who is looking to advance her long term career prospects often sets up her own business on her own terms, demanding respect for her intelligence, determination and, ultimately, her ability. She’s her own boss!

Silma Irham