Being Muslim at the Workplace

Our workplaces, like all aspects of the society we live in, are riddled with social hierarchies in addition to those imposed by management styles. Our social position determines how we experience the workplace. Movements such as MeToo have visibilized how gender-based discrimination operates at the workplace and the various incidents of harassment of SC/ST/OBC students, pushing some to suicide have been widely documented. Operating alongside these axes of power, is also that of religious identity which may have an impact on the participation of Muslims in the formal workplace.

In 2006, the Sachar Committee report found that less than 8% of Muslim workers in urban areas were employed in the formal sector as compared to the national average of 21%. The Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee chaired by Prof. Amitabh Kundu, eight years after the Sachar Committee Report, finds that as high as 18 % of the educated urban Muslim youth report unemployment. Both the Sachar Committee Report and the Kundu Committee Report speak of a perception of discrimination.

In an effort to unpack this perceived sense of discrimination, a recent documentation of Muslim youth at the formal workplace was carried out by Parcham – an organization working with Muslim youth. Parcham’s work reveals a sense of disillusionment among the majority Muslim youth with the State, a distrust of the ‘other’ who will discriminate against them whenever possible. The study attempts to throw light on how Muslims experience the formal workplace with the intent of bringing about a much needed conversation among activists and policy makers to arrive at solutions to enable participation of Muslims[1]  in the formal sector.

Parcham’s study was a pilot with a sample consisting largely of urban, English-speaking, upper caste Muslims in the age range of 27 to 40 years. The experience of lower caste and class Muslims is likely to be different. We were able to speak with 17 youth; a focus group discussion with seven engineers from Mumbra and 10 in-depth interviews with respondents from Delhi and Mumbai. Of the ten respondents, one was a school dropout, employed in the sanitation department. The rest had completed their graduation with three having completed a post graduation, three pursuing a post graduate degree, one a PhD, all employed at mid management to senior management positions in their companies which ranged from IT, Architecture Firms, Academia and Job Placements.

The sample size was limited on account of the reluctance of people to share for fear of consequences on future livelihood. This made it all the more important to put out the findings of the study to visibilise the issue of discrimination and othering. One finds that the sense of discrimination, othering and alienation sets in right from educational institutions. A respondent spoke of her 8th grade teacher raising issues of triple talaq and halala amongst Muslims, something she wonders how she was expected to defend at that age. The situation has become worse since then. “There is no apparent Islamophobia. But the teachers who have come now speak favourably about a particular party, speak badly of the anti CAA protests. They say things like women are being paid 500 to sit at the protest. There are no mechanisms to address this.” Another woman, in an MBA interview at a prestigious institute was badgered with questions unrelated to her professional expertise, including her opinion (as a Muslim) on Narendra Modi as a leader of the masses. Respondents also spoke of feeling othered by fellow students. One respondent who had decided to get into a ‘non-Muslim’ college outside of the “ghetto” where she lived, ended up being the only Muslim in her class, and was referred to as ‘gundi’ (rogue) by her classmates in her absence. No one would sit beside her in class, justifying the discrimination with the rumour that her body emitted an odour as she was a meat eater.

One of the major challenges of the study was the reluctance to have experiences documented for fear of reprisal and implications on their future career. At the workplace, no respondent described their experience as “discrimination”, however everyone agreed that as a Muslim, one had to be extra careful about one’s image, work harder and challenge the stereotype. According to one respondent there is a narrative of bias against Muslims, this makes it doubly necessary for Muslims to work harder. “If it is raining, I must be prepared with a raincoat. If there is a bias in the market, you have to work extra hard. The onus is not on the other party. I need to build trust.” Yet another mentioned that in the course of a political conversation at the office, someone commented that “we are alright with all communities except…(silence)”. She confronted the person to accept that they meant to say Muslims, but also tried to have a conversation with them drawing on her own relationship with that person. Following the news reports of the Tablighi Jamaat linkage with COVID, one of the respondents mentioned receiving a whatsapp forward on the office group blaming Muslims for the spread of COVID.

Similarly, in addition to religion we found that gender added another layer of discrimination. Gender posed a barrier while choosing a profession (one woman respondent, a civil engineer, spoke of the struggle she faced on the home front because of choosing a largely male dominated profession). Not being perceived as competent enough to be promoted, assumptions being made about their ability to perform once they were married, and having to deal with various kinds of harassment were mentioned by women respondents.

Reports that have acknowledged a bias at the workplace, have proposed an anti-discrimination law as one of the ways in which the problem could be addressed. However, based on our experience of laws for sexual harassment and the backlash, we believe that a law alone will make much of a difference. Moreover, our respondents’ experience suggest that clear positions taken by leadership in reinforcing a culture of diversity and inclusion help allay the feeling of being “othered”, as is illustrated by the example of Idris. One Friday, Idris (name changed), came to his new workplace, dressed in a kurta-pyjama and topi. A coworker commented on his choice of clothing which made Idris rethink the decision and the following Friday he went dressed in formals. This time his seniors asked him why he wasn’t in a kurta pyjama that Friday. When he shared that his dress had been commented upon by his co-worker, his seniors told him that he took orders from them and they had no problem with his attire. Another respondent spoke of the management bringing in one more microwave to heat non vegetarian food. What we see as necessary is a shift in work culture and an inculcation of a true value for diversity.

One of our respondents told us ‘The only religion of a capitalist is profit’ making the point that discrimination in hiring does not make economic sense. Yet, we continue to see various kinds of discrimination operate in the sector. There are a mere 8% Muslims in the formal sector, and a disaggregation by caste is likely to reveal even more glaring inequalities. One way of seeing it, is that there are fewer Muslims applying for work in the formal sector. Measures are needed to get Muslims to qualify for the formal workspace, and to ensure that once they get into the formal workspace, they are treated as equals without being discriminated against. The study makes a number of recommendations for the same. However, this small sample consists of those who managed to get past the hurdles of completing education and getting into the formal workspace and their experiences once they are in the system. A lot more research is needed to understand the picture better, especially in a variety of industries and among diverse castes of Muslims. Since we released the study, more Muslim youth have reached out to us to share their experiences. We will be continuing with the documentation to enable a more nuanced understanding of discrimination. Those who would like to share their experiences, can do so anonymously by submitting their stories here  or write to us at parchamcollective@gmail.com


[1] By Muslim in this study, one means a person in a Muslim family, having a ‘Muslim’ name and hence perceived to be Muslim. The study did not concern itself whether the person followed the faith or was an atheist.

~ Sabah and Sana

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