I’m 19, sitting with a group of interns in a bland conference room in Denver, CO, for our weekly lunch and learn. All eyes are on me.
“No, but where are you really from?” the CEO asked, closing his eyes and nodding his head in that subtly irritated way people do when you’re not giving them the answer they want. “You or your parents must’ve immigrated from somewhere, right?”
I don’t mind talking about where I’m from — my parents and I immigrated from Pakistan when I was two — but I hated being singled out like that. I already stuck out with my bright headscarf; my fellow interns were mostly white, mostly in suits. As a college sophomore, I was still getting used to navigating the workplace as a Muslim woman. I wasn’t looking for unwanted attention.
In the six years since that experience, I’ve come to realise that wearing a headscarf is sometimes taken as an open invitation for casual conversation about my background and religion. There are times when those conversations are welcomed, and times when it’s just another example of the countless micro-aggressions I face regularly. I’ve experienced everything from a former friend telling me her mum doesn’t want her to date Muslim guys because they’re all “wife-beaters” to sitting through class discussions about whether Muslims should be placed in internment camps. During moments like these, I find myself having to decide whether to speak up or stay silent.
Considering the amount of time I spend with my colleagues, it’s natural that we should talk about our personal lives, and I want to help educate my peers about my faith. These discussions are crucial, especially considering the omnipresent machine of fearmongering that controls the narratives about Muslims. It’s nice to be able to speak for myself and educate people in my life. But it’s not appropriate to single people out because of their background, especially in a professional setting.
It’s not appropriate to single people out because of their background, especially in a professional setting.
Despite that awkward interaction all those years ago, I’m lucky that I’ve never experienced blatant workplace discrimination because I’m a Muslim woman. I have been very careful about choosing where I work, making sure that company culture has created a safe workplace for religious minorities. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case when interacting with clients, customers, patients or candidates.
I worked for a healthcare company for almost a year as a recruiter. It was a customer-facing position, but I was lucky to be able to keep my physical anonymity — most of the work was done over the phone with people who wanted a job, and were therefore usually on their best behaviour. But it was hard to go to work the day I read about a mosque being burned down, when I knew I was spending the day talking to hiring managers and job candidates from that city. I realised the protections I had in my job didn’t really extend beyond the corporate walls.
I had heard plenty of stories of Muslim women being mishandled by customers. A friend of mine told me about a hijabi working in a hospital setting who was verbally attacked by one of her patients for being Muslim. I was relieved that all my interactions took place over the phone, and so most people did not know I was a Muslim woman. As bad as that may sound, I’m not ashamed or scared of people knowing I am Muslim. But when it comes to work, I just want to be treated like everyone else. I want to be able to focus on my job and doing my best work without worrying about being harassed or targeted because of my faith.
Whenever my faith does come up at work, I do my best not to get too emotionally involved. I never want to create workplace tension that might make it tough to do my job. And so I’ve internalised a lot. I’ve never shouted my feelings across a cubicle but in the last five years, I’ve channelled some of that energy into my YouTube channel.
Whenever my faith does come up at work, I do my best not to get too emotionally involved.
Creative storytelling has helped me cope with my pent-up frustrations about being treated differently because I’m a religious minority. It has allowed me to be more open without worrying about disrupting the work dynamic. In my “Secret Life of Hijabi” series I aimed to share personal stories — both good and bad — as a covered Muslim woman and provide insight to an audience that may not know much about that world.
This year, I was nominated for one of YouTube’s Creators for Change fellowships. This achievement has helped me realise that my videos not only help me, but other Muslim women. I’ve received messages from women all over the world, telling me how my videos resonate with them and sharing similar experiences. I’ve also gotten feedback from people who changed their negative opinions of Muslims after watching my channel.
It is the positive feedback that continues to push me to share videos about the Muslim-American experience. And the YouTube fellowship helps push me further so I can continue making content that provides support and education to those who need it. Maybe someday I won’t have to worry that my colleagues or customers will treat me differently because of my headscarf — and neither will my fellow hijabis.
Earlier this year, Tasneem received a fellowship through the YouTube Creators for Change programme, which is dedicated to supporting video creators who are using their YouTube channels to tackle tough social issues. Tasneem was one of 28 YouTube creators around the world selected for this fellowship, and she recently premiered a video from her Creators for Change project at the first Tribeca TV Festival in NYC.
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