I am a Muslim mom of two kids and a qualified Chartered Professional Accountant with seven years of full-time work experience. On Instagram, I get asked all the time how I got into the corporate world as a hijab-wearing woman and it brings back memories as far back as the first year of university. My younger self could have never imagined the life I have now. As a young, visibly Muslim student, I often felt very nervous about being able to find a job in “the real world.” I remember going to career fairs inn university among other keen students and like everyone else, I felt the pressure to network with recruiters of big companies and leave a lasting impact in their minds. It was daunting. When you feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, you want to blend in with the crowd as much as possible. But that is not so easy for a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
The hijab became my strength once I changed by mindset about it. I was very lucky that I lived in a multicultural country like Canada and in a city like Toronto that embraced diversity. I also realized that I wore the hijab because it made me feel empowered in so many ways. So one day, I decided that I would see this as a strength and happily stand out and lead instead of blending in and hiding. It no longer made me nervous.
From that point on, I worked hard in school and applied to jobs with confidence. I let my hardwork and determination become the focus, not my clothing. Soon, I became one of the few students who got a summer internship at a professional services firm in the second year of university. I thought I had done it – I had made it past any perceptions that may have existed in the minds of recruiters. However, on the first day of work, I was reminded of just how different I was. On the subway to downtown Toronto, in the elevator up to my floor, and in the hallways of my new office, I was shocked to realize that I was the only South Asian women and the only visible Muslim as far as one could see. This was 10 years ago and things have changed a lot for the better since then. However, back then I couldn’t have said that the corporate office I was in represented the diversity of the city in which it operated.
Overtime, I came to realize that there was little to no understanding of religious practices in the corporate environment. Most of my co-workers didn’t know why I had to excuse myself for five minutes to pray. They didn’t know what halal food was and had little to no knowledge of religious dietary restrictions. When it came time for Ramadan, I found myself explaining to everyone why I wasn’t eating or drinking. I took days off for Eid when no one else did, which made me fall behind in my work. Another challenge was the events that were held after work. Most of the mix-and-mingles centered around consumption of alcohol late into the night. This is where I found that I had to excuse myself and either not attend, or leave very early. In situations like these, I had to prioritize my religious values over potential bonding time with co-workers.
However, this put me in a unique situation to look out for other opportunities to bond with co-workers while also bringing awareness to Islamic practices. As Muslims we have two Eids, and I made sure I brought some of the Eid celebration to my office as well. I would bring a mix of South Asian, Middle Eastern and other sweets and they were always a hit. People gather around food so it always led to great conversations. Another opportunity was potlucks. I mostly ate vegetarian food or seafood based meals at events sponsored by my employers. Therefore, when it came to team potlucks, I always liked to bring meat dishes and explained the concept of halal food.
The nature of my work involved constantly working with different teams in different locations. So while I had to explain many things many times, I was lucky to have the opportunity to educate so many people about Islam. There were several occasions where I went off-site with my teams for projects and those were some of the best detailed discussions we held. My co-workers were able to see that although there are some differences on the surface, Muslims are otherwise just like everyone else they were used to seeing. Overtime, more Muslims were recruited as well and the workplace became more diverse. It is now common for many office to offer prayer rooms, halal food at events, and days off for Eid.
I also used my experiences to mentor other Muslim students, particularly hijab-wearing Muslim students. I felt that seeing me in the workplace gave them the confidence that they too could find a job in the corporate world despite being visibly different from the mainstream. I also received similar support from other members of the Muslim community. I remember one particular Muslim woman who was a recruiter for a bank. Seeing her in a senior position gave me the confidence to keep going well.
To anyone who is a visible minority, especially to Muslim women, I would say never to lose hope. Your difference – the uniqueness of your perspective – is your strength. Show it off and leverage it to become successful in the workplace and beyond!