Muslim women in India allege bias in hiring for jobs

New Delhi, India – Lubna Aamir, 28, is a dentist by training. But practising her profession remains a dream for her.

After studying dentistry and a few years of practice at a government college in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, Aamir wanted a better position.

In 2018, the Pune resident started applying for a job at clinics across India through email. She even dropped resumes in person at some clinics.

“I wanted to branch out to what we call the class practice and have an experience beyond local circles,” Aamir told Al Jazeera.

She applied for jobs at nearly two dozen places but there was no response “despite having very good credentials”.

“I had scored excellent grades and had an internship from a government college which is much sought after in the dental industry. My work profile was good. Still, I was not getting any response,” she told Al Jazeera.

Muslims make up nearly 14 percent of India’s 1.35 billion population but do not have the same representation in government or private sector jobs. Multiple government-appointed commissions have found the community is at the bottom among India’s social groups in terms of education and employment.

One of those commissions, headed by now retired Justice Rajinder Sachar, found in 2006 that India’s Muslims were disadvantaged in social, economic and educational terms. Less than 8 percent of them were employed in the formal sector compared with the national average of 21 percent, the commission said in its report.

According to the 2011 census, the last conducted by the government since the 2021 exercise was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the participation of Muslim women in jobs was less than 15 percent, whereas it was more than 27 percent for Hindu women. The corresponding figures for Buddhist and Christian women were 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

The situation has worsened since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power, with the government pursuing policies targeting the Muslim minority and their economic and religious rights.

When she said ‘you don’t look like a Muslim’, I was taken aback, wondering what she meant.

by Sabah Khan, HR professional

Doubly marginalised

In a deeply-polarised society, Muslim women are doubly marginalised. Experts say they stand at the intersection of gender and religious differences which significantly increases their likelihood of suffering prejudice by potential employers.

“The bias was always there but with the dominance of the BJP and RSS, people have been now calling for the exclusion of Muslims from all the economic areas,” Apoorvanand, an academic and activist based in capital New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

“Since this enjoys the protection and patronage often by the state, it is now being done openly,” he added.

The RSS refers to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right paramilitary group founded in 1925 that mentors India’s Hindu supremacist groups, including the ruling BJP. The organisation, which counts Modi among millions of its lifetime members, aims to turn secular India into an ethnic Hindu state.

Apoorvanand said the objective of the Hindu right is to “cripple the Muslims economically, force them into a state of deprivation and constant want so that they turn into a permanent subjugated population”.

“Politically Muslims have been disempowered. The idea now is to disempower them in all areas of life,” he said.

For Muslim women, much of it is about the hijab.

After multiple rejections, dentist Aamir realised it was her identity that was putting her at a disadvantage. Had she not been a Muslim, she felt things would have been different.

During her interview at one of the branches of a large Indian chain of dental clinics, she was asked about her personal life and beliefs.

“I answered everything they asked. At the end of the interview, I was asked about my hijab,” she said.

The interviewer asked Aamir upfront if she was willing to take off her hijab if she worked at the clinic. She refused.

Aamir recalls a human resource executive telling her later that they will not hire her.

“She took me aside and told me in private that she doesn’t want to keep my hopes up for the job. She said, ‘I won’t be going ahead with you,’” Aamir said.

They have a problem with us being Muslims but they have a bigger problem with us being visibly Muslims.

by Lubna Aamir, Dentist

Desperate for a job, Aamir switched from clinical to the non-clinical field. She is now working as a senior medical data analyst in a bioinformatics company that focuses on cancer research.

“I had to make tough decisions. The feeling of not doing the patients was like I am not doing enough being a doctor. It initiates a deep spiral within you,” she said.

Shaila Irfan, 32, was a teacher at one of New Delhi’s largest chains of English-medium schools. Everything was going smoothly until someone from the administration asked her if she really needed to wear the hijab.

“They politely asked me to take off my hijab because students and teachers are uncomfortable with it,” Irfan told Al Jazeera.

She left the job without arguing with the administration and began looking for a new job. She cleared the interview at another school but was told there would be “another round” of it.

“This time they asked if I will take off the hijab. I was not hired because I refused to remove it,” said Irfan.

‘Hiring bias’

A study published in June by LedBy Foundation, a leadership incubator that focuses on the professional development of Muslims, has also revealed discrimination and bias against Muslim women in the hiring process for entry-level jobs in various sectors.

The “Hiring Bias” study highlights excessive hiring bias against Muslim women even in instances where they were equally qualified for the job.

LedBy Foundation said it created two equally qualified résumés. The only difference was in their names: Habiba Ali for the Muslim profile and Priyanka Sharma for the Hindu.

Over 10 months, the foundation responded to 1,000 job postings on the professional networking site LinkedIn by sending applications in the names of the two women.

It found the net discrimination rate was 47.1 percent as the Hindu woman received 208 positive responses, while the Muslim woman received only 103.

This was evident across industries. Recruiters were more cordial to the Hindu candidate. More than 41 percent of the recruiters connected with Sharma over phone calls, while only 12.6 percent did the same with Ali.

A similar study, “Being a Muslim at the Workplace” by Mumbai-based feminist collective Parcham, found that even in metropolitan cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, Muslims continue to face prejudice in the formal sector.

The report noted that a scarcity of Muslim women in the formal sector points out to a systematic and institutionalised push towards an economic exclusion of Muslims.

“Our study notes the different ways in which discrimination occurs to exclude Muslims from the workforce. Women were doubly marginalised. Unchecked bullying, suspecting the nationalism of Muslims, and making assumptions based on bigoted notions of Muslims were so common,” said the report.

In 2018, Sabah Khan (first name changed), a 28-year-old from the city of Lucknow in north India’s Uttar Pradesh state, applied for human resource positions at several companies around New Delhi after gaining work experience of three years.

A leading Indian media company with a sprawling office in Gurugram, a bustling New Delhi suburb and home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies, invited her for an interview with the HR manager.

“Her first question was about my name. I only write my first name in my CV. So the HR manager inquired about my surname,” Khan told Al Jazeera.

Khan, who does not wear a hijab, was then told she does not look like a Muslim.

“When she said ‘you don’t look like a Muslim’, I was taken aback, wondering what she meant. I thought she might have an idea about how Muslim women should look,” said Khan.

Khan ignored the remarks and decided to focus on the interview. The next stereotypical question was whether her family would allow her to work.

“I was expecting her to talk about my job,” Khan said.

By then, she knew she would not be chosen for the job. As she left, she was told to wait to hear back from the company. She never did.

Ruha Shadab, the founder and CEO of LedBy Foundation, says conversations concerning the experiences of Muslim women from various backgrounds entering the workplace revealed some anecdotal insights about “visible and subtle discriminatory responses and tendencies” from the recruiters.

“This prompted us to wonder what was the quantifiable evidence behind these experiences and how these anecdotes could be converted into quantifiable evidence. We attempted to identify the barriers to Muslim women’s labour-force participation in this study,” she said.

Their study, says Shadab, demonstrates that prejudice in the hiring process is extremely common in India and can take two forms.

“One might be an explicit bias, where the individual is conscious of and believes in their prejudice against Muslims and Muslim women in particular. They are genuinely prejudiced against Muslims and are extremely vocal about it. The second method of discrimination is the implicit one, in which those who support the Hindu candidate may not be doing so with full awareness. Due to implicit prejudices, they discriminate unintentionally,” explained Shadab.

Dentist Aamir says she felt her identity, the one she was always proud of, had turned into an obstacle.

“They have a problem with us being Muslims but they have a bigger problem with us being visibly Muslims,” she told Al Jazeera.

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