I am against the veil because it is against morality. (Nawal el-Saadawi)
Many years ago, during a leadership seminar that I was delivering in an Arab country, I had a group of passionate participants, both men and women. There were two completely veiled ladies, with light sheets of black fabric over their faces. They were extremely active in class discussions. Although I am used to veiled women in my classes and seminars, this was the first instance where I had two women with niqab (a full face veil), and it was quite a challenging experience. I felt I did not know how to interact with them in class. They sat all the time next to each other, and it was hard for me to establish the usual rapport that a teacher would need to have with his students. I kept questioning myself: what things were allowed while interacting with them, and what things were not? I made a point that I would look at them when they talked. Although I could not see their faces, I realized that it would be courteous that I acknowledge them even more by looking into the veils that cover their faces.
Once during the long days of the seminar, one of them was talking at length and I was looking at her. Then I saw the person I was looking at, shaking her head sideways directing me to the person next to her. It took
© The Author(s) 2018
Y.M. Sidani, Muslim Women at Work,
me a while to understand her body language, but I soon realized that I was looking at the wrong person. I was acknowledging the person who was not talking, while failing to recognize the person who was. I felt embarrassed. I’m not sure whether the two female participants or others in the classroom felt my awkwardness.
I have to admit that it was a bit of a challenge to let them feel welcome through the long hours of the seminar. My belief was that they were very much committed to the subject matter, but there was no way for me to tell. The reciprocal feedback that usually occurs between a teacher and students was interrupted. Moreover, in those situations when group work is needed, how would I plan which groups to assign them to? Would it matter if they are mingled in groups where there are males? Or should I just restrict them to female-only groups? Would it be rude if I require them to be involved in some leadership activities that require lots of movements in class? Or would they feel offended if I don’t? How can I have proper class interaction while being confident that I am taking them into proper consideration? What is acceptable? What is not? If I knew this beforehand, what different approach would I have taken?
I cannot but extend the implications of this incident to a workplace situation. How would I deal with those two women if they were under my supervision? Are there any work or development opportunities that they would miss given their dress code? What sort of expectations would they have of me? Would they expect me to deal with them like I deal with any other employee, including other veiled women who do not cover their faces? Or, would they expect some additional accommodation? If this is the case, what sort of accommodation would they expect? Would I be able to comprehensively appraise their performance at the end of the year like I would do for any other employee? Would I get their performance confused? Would I inadvertently—or even consciously—pass them over when certain opportunities arise when I think they would not fit? If I do that, would that be fair?
I realize now that it was my inexperience in dealing with such situations that prompted me to feel anxious. Other colleagues, or managers in such a work situation, who have a better understanding of various cultures, have developed ways to deal with such issues. For me, the seminar was over in less than a week. But, for a company, this could be an issue that they have to struggle with day in and day out. They have to do what is right for the company, for the operations, for the customers, and for the bottom-line. At the same time, they have to do what is fair to the individual worker who has the right to work—just like any other employee—given her skills, experience, and background, without anybody prejudging her. The problem that I faced could be related to the fact that many such interactions are regulated by unwritten norms. Employee handbooks and supervisor manuals are usually devoid on how to deal with such intricate circumstances. People have to deduce what would be the right thing to do in coping with such instances, either in an academic environment, or in the work context. Such an encounter may be particularly burdensome to the male manager. Not only does he have to deal with a cultural divide (national/foreigner), or with a basic gender divide (male/female), he also has to deal with an employee at a more detailed level of diversity (religious/veiled/covering her face). This could complicate things for him unless he is able to develop the cultural and social intelligence to deal with such situations.
Thankfully, companies are increasingly becoming conscious of the need to have diverse environments that guarantee equal opportunity, fairness, and reasonable accommodation. Levels of diversity in Western countries have primarily revolved around race and gender, immigration status, and ethnicity. Those are also salient in Arab workplaces. Yet it may get even more complicated as aspects of religiosity, religious behavior, and religious observance enter into the picture.
How Muslim women dress has become an issue in the Western public space as evidenced by the headscarf and burqa debate in France and other European countries. Strangely enough to some, this has also been—for a long time—an issue in Muslim countries. Such controversies do not only occur as women negotiate their participation in the larger public space in terms of political participation, but also in the “smaller” public space such as in businesses, schools, and other societal institutions.
The female participants in my class may have been among the best performers among their cohort. In many cases in my experience, they actually turn out to be like that. Some would argue that they have more to prove. I have found that in many of the seminars with both male and female participants, females—irrespective of whether they were veiled or not—have mostly been outgoing and dynamic. Although such anecdotal evidence should not lead to an overgeneralization, it would be sufficient to conclude that the dress code does not pose a problem to them. In a work setting, a manager would find them to be motivated and engaged in what they do, even if just to prove a point that they can produce and be positive contributors to their companies. Those women face many doubts about whether they can really be industrious and useful to their organizations.
They face suspicions whether they can be serious, whether they have longterm commitment to their work, or whether their lifestyles would impede their functioning at work. More often than not, they prove their doubters to be wrong.