Cases of discrimination against Muslim women wearing the veil and headscarf are being reported in the UAE. Notes finds out how the academia and students react to this development

When a friend graduated and started her job hunt, she thought she had prepared herself to face all sorts of clichéd rejections.

The company may not have a vacancy, her work experience could be insufficient, or there could be a better candidate ….

Typical responses.

Disappointing, of course, but neither terribly surprising nor difficult to deal with.

So imagine her shock when she was told during an interview that her qualifications were perfect but she had to get rid of her veil and headscarf to be hired. Needless to say, she was upset.

The story sounds familiar?

Probably so.

Discrimination against Muslim women wearing the veil (niqab) and/or the headscarf (hijab) is not uncommon, especially in the West. But lately it appears to have found its way into the UAE.

In November last year, a company insisted that an Egyptian woman remove her headscarf if she wanted to be hired.

It was reported in the Gulf News issue of November 23.

In January this year, Muslim women converts said they had been fired for wearing the hijab. The story was reported in the Gulf News issue of January 3.

A few days later, a report revealed that some recruiters were reluctant to hire women who wore the headscarf because it, being a religious symbol, made clients uncomfortable. The report was published in the Gulf News issue of January 7.

Last month, the Abu Dhabi Organisation and Management Authority issued a circular, banning women employees in all Abu Dhabi local departments from wearing the veil while at work.

The reason given was that women employees were using their veils to enter and leave work at their leisure, since they could not be identified by security cameras.

Undoubtedly, what they were doing is incorrect, but does it call for such measures? How do female Muslim students and graduates feel about the issue? Notes finds out.

Ban unnecessary

"It is shocking that some women wearing veils are abusing it in such a way," said Salma Banawan, a computer engineering student at the University of Sharjah (UoS).

"But it doesn't mean they should ban the veil." The 19-year-old sophomore, who wears the veil, added that it was unfair to resort to the ban just because of a few women.

"Those who are using it to leave work early can be detained or fired," she said.

Riham Allaham, an information technology student at the Dubai University College, agreed.

"Women have the right to cover their face if they wish to, but those who misuse it are in the wrong. We should respect the rules, so we can be respected in return," the 21-year-old said.

Nahla Al Amoodi, a chemical engineering student at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), seconded the opinion, saying the ban was unnecessary if it was simply for identification purposes.

"Identifying a woman wearing a veil is easy nowadays because technology has reached a point where eye scans can be used," she said.

Fatima A., a graduate of Zayed University now working in Abu Dhabi, said she had not faced such a situation at her workplace.

She did, however, agree that other means of identification, such as fingerprints, could be used.

Discrimination in UAE?

Respondents were divided on whether discrimination against women wearing the headscarf and/or the veil exists in the UAE.

"This ban is an evidence of bias," said Chirine Constantini, majoring in environmental studies at AUS.

She added, "There is a higher percentage of covered women working conscientiously but this is being overlooked."

According to Salma, this kind of discrimination has begun in Muslim countries because "everyone is just blindly following Western countries, and so companies sometimes prefer hiring women who promote a certain image".

Chirine agreed, "I know many women who were rejected at interviews because of their hijab."

Salma added that when she wanted to get a job during Gitex, she was told that "they were not accepting girls wearing scarves".

R.S., a student at New Horizon Institute who is also looking for a job, said post 9/11, Islam is perceived as having a "bad reputation" with people associating religious symbols such as the veil with extremism and terrorism.

She said when her sister applied for a job in a reputed organisation, they asked her to remove her veil, which she did. They then accepted her.

She said, "I took off my veil in advance because my circumstances are such that I must find a job."

Nahla is among those who say that "in this part of the world, there is hardly any discrimination and a lot of women wear the hijab and niqab".

Fatima emphasised that she has never had problems at work because of her veil. Riham, too, concurred, saying: "I wear both the hijab and the niqab and I haven't faced any discrimination."

Maysun Nimr, manager of Career Advising and Placement Services (CAPS) at AUS, said companies that they dealt with had never shown any prejudice against women students who wore the hijab or niqab.

"There was only one instance in which a company had requested that applicants wear the uniform that they had assigned for the job, so that automatically ruled out girls wearing the hijab," Nimr said.

"But otherwise there has never been any sort of discrimination."

A difficult choice

All those interviewed said they would not, under any circumstances, remove their headscarves in the face of social pressure.

However, some were willing to compromise on the face veil if absolutely necessary.

"Removing the hijab is impossible because it is clear that it is obligatory and I will try my best to keep the veil on," Chirine said.

"But I hope I won't face any problems because I am very ambitious and want to work in my field."

Salma agreed, noting that removing the hijab is a definite "no-no" but uncovering her face would "depend on the situation".

Asked the same question, Fatima said, "That's a tough one. I really wouldn't know what to do. It would be a difficult choice especially if you are so used to wearing it [the veil] like I am."

Nahla and Riham said they would not be willing to get rid of either the hijab or the niqab.

"It is illogical to think that I cannot be trusted just because I have a piece of cloth covering my face," Nahla said.

Dr Awad Al Khalaf, assistant professor at the College of Sharia and Law at UoS, explained that it is clear in Sharia (Islamic law) that it is compulsory for a Muslim woman to wear the hijab.

However, there are two religious viewpoints on the niqab. Some scholars consider it obligatory while others rule that it is optional; but both sides agree that wearing it is recommended.

The decision is left to the woman "and we should respect her freedom of choice," he said.

With regard to the ban in Abu Dhabi, he said it could be avoided, because "they [the companies] can use female security or eye scans to identify the women who wear veils".

The solution

But what should a woman, who is discriminated against at the workplace for wearing a hijab and a niqab, do when put in a difficult situation?

A professor of I