A Muslim flight attendant recently said she’d been fired because, in practice with her religion, she refused to serve alcohol to passengers.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Samantha Elauf, who applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch but was denied a position because her hijab (headscarf) was not in line with the company’s dress code. And in 2012, a woman sued Disneyland for very much the same reason.
In the workplace, and many times during the hiring process, Muslim women say they encounter a number of challenges because of religion. The hijab brings a private part of their lives into the public sphere. Their religion practices can also limit the jobs they’re able to perform, which employers are sometimes loath to accommodate.
“When it is very clear that they’re identifying themselves as Muslim,” says Maha Sayed, an attorney with the Council of American-Islamic Relations, “we see employers outright stating disapproval and refusing to accommodate them.”
That was the case for Charee Stanley, the flight attendant. She worked at ExpressJet for three years, converting to Islam after her first year there. She learned that her new religion prohibited her from not just drinking alcohol, but serving it (though not all Muslims believe this), so she devised a workaround: When a customer ordered an alcoholic drink, she would relay the request to another attendant. The company placed her on unpaid leave.
Workplace discrimination complaints from Muslims have increased at higher rates than any other religious group in the past 20 years. But identifying a Muslim man by appearance—especially since thick beards have become fashionable in recent years—is much harder than identifying a Muslim woman. The American Civil Liberties Union cites a report that says 69 percent of women wearing a hijab have experienced at least one incident of discrimination.
Discrimination during the hiring process can be the most common, but hardest to prove, says Sayed. Corporations may have an open hiring policy, but especially in entry-level jobs, managers often make the hiring decision. If a manager sees a woman in a hijab, Sayed says some might assume it’s too difficult to accommodate her religious practices, which can require prayer breaks, fasting during religious holidays, or exceptions to uniforms. Other managers may not want customers to associate Islam with their business. Customer-facing jobs such as hostess or receptionist could be discreetly removed as possible positions for Muslim women.
“A company should not be able to say ‘No’ to a qualified candidate,” says Waqas Syed, spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America, a group that promotes Muslim understanding. “So they come up with another reason.”
Muslim who want to become police officers have also run into dress-code barriers that would not allow them to wear the hijab. Same goes for women wanting to become bus drivers, who for safety must sometimes wear tighter-fitting clothes or pants, something some Muslim women prefer not to do.
After they’re hired, Muslim women often find themselves isolated from after-work functions, Syed says, where even at holiday parties there’s usually alcohol, which may make the environment uncomfortable.
Discrimination can even arise before the interview process has even begun. A study by Carnegie Mellon University found that job applicants who self-identified as Muslim on social media stood a much lower chance of receiving a callback when compared with Christian applicants, even though they had the same name and qualifications. In Republican-leaning states, only 2 percent of Muslim job applicants received callbacks, compared to 17 percent of Christian-identifying applicants.
This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.