For most of my journey as a muslimah who wears hijab, I have been either a student or a stay-home mum. Even when I worked from home, running a playgroup, and offering tuition to students, hijab was never an issue. It was something I believed in, something that was a part of me. Even though I lived in an area where Muslims are a minority, and hijabi’s are even moreso, my hijab was not something I rendered much thought to, it was simply a natural extension of who I was.
Then when I decided to return to formal employment, for the first time, I found myself being conscious of it. From the starting point, at the interview, I found myself being insecure, wondering if I would be turned down for the position simply because of the manner in which I dressed. This opened up new questions, what if the interviewer was a male, what if he extended his hand to shake mine, how would I avert this, and do it in a manner that is not perceived as rude?
Alhamdulillah, the interviewers were both female, and I did get the job. This then led to a whole new range of questions, not least of which was once again the interaction with male colleagues. I quickly found a way around the handshake, by entering a room with a friendly smile, and greeting them from a few meters away, and ensuring that my hands were always occupied, holding files or a cup of coffee, and gesturing that they have a seat. They quickly realised what was appropriate for me, and because it’s a very formal environment, it was easily accepted for what it was.
I did however find that often times, my hijab whilst not a limiting factor to me, did make others perceive my abilities in a less than favourable manner. I had to work harder, I had to smile more, I had to go the extra mile every day, just in order to prove not my excellence, but simply my competence. I of course got a lot of questions, and most of these were unfortunately the based on negative stereotyping in the media. Initially I was a little annoyed by these misconceptions, but then took the opportunity to answer questions in a manner that was honest, and to explain that this was not forced upon me. This was my choice. No it does not mean I’m uneducated. No, it does not mean I’m not ‘liberated’ When answering questions about hijab; I naturally answered questions about other aspects of faith too. And slowly I found myself chipping away at the preconceived stereotyping that had taken place because of a ‘piece of cloth on my head’ I found that my own confidence was starting to return, and I found myself focussing less on other people’s perception of me, and more on my work. When I made this breakthrough for myself, my work improved too!
Of course there are many other hurdles facing muslimahs in the formal work environment, not least of which is the limited availability of modest formal workwear. However with some clever thinking, and a bit of mixing and matching, I was able to pair formal work dresses that were knee-long, with pants. Longer dresses that were sleeveless with a blazer. When it came to the actual hijabs, I chose to go with the simpler designs, and no embellishments.
Overall I found that by not compromising who I was in terms of dressing, and in maintaining a consistent appearance in terms of modesty, in remaining steadfast to my commitment of hijab, there were certain hurdles placed in my path. Alhamdulillah with faith and having a strong belief I have managed to jump over these hurdles. Of course while there are still many other factors to contend with, my dressing is not one of them. Where I previously projected uncertainty and insecurity about wearing a hijab, I am now confident with my decision, and have proven that far from it being a limiting factor, it is in fact the opposite. The only criterion I am judged on now, in the workplace, is my competence, and ability to perform task required of me. A huge part of this had to do with my own mindset, with re-aligning my own thought patterns, and re establishing my niyaah, re-affirming that I was choosing to wear hijab solely because of Allah’s command.