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The Untold Stories of Lebanese Veiled Females

The Untold Stories of Lebanese Veiled Females

My classmates in grade 12 always saw me as a news reporter or anchor, so did my kind Arabic instructor. That made me very happy. It actually still makes me happy today. Being a news anchor has always been my childhood dream. Yet, it is no longer the dream I am pursuing. Enrolling as a communication arts student at university was one step towards achieving this dream, but I never realized that the world is so harsh to stop even simpler dreams from coming true. For, in brief, what media outlet here in Lebanon would employ a reporter or news anchor that covers her hair?

In Lebanon, females struggle to have equal footing in the workplace, as statistics show that only 23% of the workforce is constituted of females. The shortage of females in the workforce is indeed an important issue that must be addressed, but beneath that, there are females who are discriminated against not because of their natural born sex, but rather their dress code which is a simple right guaranteed by the basic motto of freedom of the choice. Veiled women in Lebanon continuously face discrimination in their attempts to be employed. The worst part about this issue is the lack of statistical documentation and the refusal of decision makers to address the situation.

In an academic research I am currently conducting at the American University of Beirut, where I am pursuing my masters in sociology, I discovered that there were around 500 registered students who wear a veil in the academic year 2011-2012. I am sure there are at least a hundred more students to add to this number from other universities in the country. To put it more concretely, it is not a question of whether there are competitive, well-educated young women who wear a veil that could be employed in this country. The question is: where are they?

Allow me here to get back to my dream. Let me start from the moment I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts back in 2009. After completing my degree, I was offered a job at a TV channel, but I turned it down without regret. This channel was owned by a conservative religious party, and becoming an employee would create unwanted associations. What other TV channels would later hire an employee that had worked for a media organization with such orientation? And, on my side, how much could this position satisfy my personal ambitions and bring me closer to my dream?

There is a larger issue to be addressed here: the polarization of society between religious and secular institutions. In general, secular institutions tend not to hire employees that may put their neutrality at stake. Unfortunately, many perceive veiled employees as so because they consider the veil a sociopolitical sign rather than a religious one. This perception is provoking the discrimination and further dividing the society into two blocs. When a veiled lady cannot find a job, she has two choices: either staying at home, or retreating to religious institutions. By religious institutions, I mean the sociopolitical and humanitarian institutions that are managed by different religious groups or authorities. Many of these institutions do impressive work, but they are isolated from the rest of the society and they have their unique religious conservative culture. Practically, when a person starts a job at one of these institutions, it is very hard for him or her to make the move to other ordinary local institutions in the society. I know some people who once worked in similar institutions, but then would not include that on their curriculum vitae for the negative impression it would give. To put it more concretely, people working in these institutions are isolated from the rest of the society, and as the problem is snowballing. As the number of these ‘isolated’ people is increasing, so is the polarization between the secular and the religious communities.

Let me once again get back to my dream and tell you more about the Lebanese TV stations. First, I must make it clear that I am aware that I am not a beautiful reporter to hire, nor the anchor with the best voice to tell the news, but I can see that I have all the qualifications and skills of the reporters on TV. A few months ago, a local channel hired a blind reporter and broadcasted over and over again news about employing this person. Indeed, it is a positive thing to integrate people with special needs into our society, but I understand this in rather a different sense: if you are blind it is much easier to get hired as a reporter than if you are veiled.

Interestingly, the host of a famous show on this same channel, Mr. Tony Khalifeh, discussed about a year ago the issue of discrimination against veiled women journalists. But that was the only time I ever read or heard the problem discussed in the social or mainstream media. Then, when I was conducting some research for this piece, I came across the blog of a young veiled Lebanese woman who faced discrimination because of her veil and was denied a job. Frustrated by the incident she established a blog called ‘7ijabi’ (literally: “my veil”) to address the topic. The first account narrative of the blogger is worth a read:

“I was invited for my final interview where I was sure that I would be signing a contract, however my expectations were not in the right place. “Are you willing to change your attire a bit? “Asked the human resources manager during the interview? “What about your veil, do you always wear it like this “. I started to understand where he was going and reality started to sink in: I was facing discrimination …… I could not understand how by having a piece of cloth over head I was less qualified”

Not addressing the issue of discrimination against veiled women is, in my opinion, a worse problem than the actual discrimination. It is making our society more polarized and dividing it into ‘us’ and ‘them’. I personally do not know where I fit. My veil is part of me, but at the same time, I want to hold a decent prominent job and, most of all, contribute to the whole society. I, too, cannot understand how wearing a veil makes me less qualified.

It is bitter at times to hear stories of discrimination from friends and acquaintances. A friend of mine was working with a United Nations program here in Lebanon, but her director often informed her each time people made a discriminatory comment about her being unpresentable. Presentable here has nothing to do with the outer beauty of my friend, but rather with the veil that covers her hair. It is important to note that in this case the employer is not a local institution, but rather an international one associated with the United Nations. Provoke your imagination, then, to understand how local institutions perceive veiled women.

Now, get back to reality. There’s still some hope.

Suppose you were the young blogger who was questioned in a job interview about her veil. Consider that you can skillfully channel your disappointment and communicate to the interviewer that you best fit the job despite what may be perceived as barriers by him or her. Developing your public speaking and interpersonal communication skills is always an asset to skillfully avert any type of discrimination and to further demonstrate your competence as an employee. In this context, one can elegantly reply to different kinds of questions and explain why the veil is not a barrier for performing this particular job. In addition to equipping yourself with techniques to face discrimination, you should believe in yourself in the first place. “Start being strong from the inside, and your employer is going to see it,” advises the inspiring veiled woman I met few days ago.

Her name is Hiba Khodr. She covers her hair with a plain white veil and dresses in a simple long coat. One of no more than five full-time veiled faculty members, she is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and Political Science at the American University of Beirut. “The moment you wear a veil you are negatively labeled and placed in a certain category,” Khodr says. She recalls that when she first joined the institution some fellow professors did not even say hi.

“A women’s beauty is her first weapon in the society,” as Khodr puts it, “but when you wear a veil you have lost this weapon and you are obliged to work on your insight, intellect, and behavior,” she adds. The end point, as Khodr asserts, “the hijab will bring the best out of you.” I find Khodr’s story a case in point that, despite the widespread discrimination against veiled women in the society, there is still a path to be in a prominent position at a decent institution. You can still pursue your dream and aim high. Khodr asserts that there is no secret recipe behind her employment, yet emphasized that one should be strong and believe in herself at the first place to reach what she aims.

Now, it may be the time to explain why I did not get back to my dream yet.

Imagine that, by some chance, a director or producer in some channel that hires veiled women sends me a job offer. Let’s further assume that I accept it. You will not read these words anymore. You will probably think that all females in Lebanon are fully veiled. You may then not know that there are different kinds of veil. You may have the misconception that my vision mentor had about the veil being a niqab . You may further assume that Muslim women are a homogenous bloc, all having the same perceptions about themselves and the society. You will never have the chance to know how different I perceive my veil than my sister, and how a potential employer views me differently than other candidates. You will not know about the discrimination against veiled people in the supposedly Middle Eastern conservative region. I will probably achieve my dream and be a news anchor or reporter, but hundreds of veiled young women will be here struggling with the unaddressed and veiled problem.

I believe this is the first step towards a solution to any kind of discrimination. I should talk about it, you should talk about it, and everyone who experiences discrimination or hears of a case should speak about it. Let us stop considering our experiences personal incidents and look at the common factors of them. There are indeed veiled unqualified women; there are indeed veiled women who have been denied a job for many factors other than their veil; but there is at the end of the day this type of discrimination against veiled women that is accumulating day after day.

As it is unjust to force women in some countries to wear a veil so that they can leave their houses or have a job, it is unjust to deny women in a country like mine a job because of the veil. We should support each other in abolishing these different types of discrimination, starting with our own neighborhoods and communities. This is why, my fella, I invite you to sign this petition that I started to stop discrimination against veiled women in the workplace in Lebanon. Let your voice count!

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Citation

1) Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics & UNICEF, 2009. Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey 2009. Final report, p. 71. Beirut: Lebanon.
2) The blog can be accessed at the following link: www.hijabi.wordpress
3) The term ‘veil’ is used in this piece to signify the piece of clothe covering the hair only. The niqab is the common term for the veil that covers the face and hair.

Comments

Mukut's picture

Brilliant

Very pertinent issue addressed Bayan. I understand your frustation in making people understand the difference between a 'veil' and a 'niqab'. I did not know it until few years back when I read about the discrimination by a muslim activist.

Thank you for sharing this. May you win the battle against discrimination and show light to other women as well.

Well done.

Love

Mukut Ray

bitani's picture

thanks

thank you dear Mukut for your kind reply :) (F)

Nakinti's picture

Dear Bitani, You have spoken

Dear Bitani,
You have spoken loud and clear.
I never imagined a form of dressing, like the veil, would determine how one gets access to available jobs.
This is really a sad situation. Why is this happening. I need to sign that petition my dear.
Women, we have suffered in different ways.
My dear, keep advocating for your fellow women. Change will sure come some day.
Thank you for this wonderful awareness raising piece
Sending you love from Cameroon my dear.
Nakinti

Nakinti B. Nofuru
2013 VOF Correspondent
Reporter for Global Press Institute
Bamenda - Cameroon
Email: nakinti@globalpressinstitute.org
nakintin@yahoo.com

bitani's picture

thanks Nakitni

Thank you Nakitni for all the encouragement and support.

you have my warmest regards as well :)

Ayunnie's picture

The Hijab

Dear Bitani
What a strong way to bring your point out. its sad to note that women are still discriminated using the dress cord. Thank you for initiating a stop to this! i am signing the petition. Keep up the good fight till we are there!

@ Nairobi KENYA
Women have impeccable character, if tapped society realizes quantum leap in development

bitani's picture

thank you

Thank you Ayunnie for devoting the time to read and comment on my piece, as well as to sign the petition.

I do hope that the world will be more just to all of us humans some day.

Iryna's picture

Beautiful and strong

I respect people who speak straight even sometimes it sounds too much strong. I am impressed with the tone of your article, Bitani, it is so clear and correct. In the place where I live we have one third of Muslims, but only recently I began to see some of veiled women working. What is sad, most of their working places are sellers in the market. The good thing is that we have a young TV and radio channels who support Muslims, and here I can see time to time women who wear veils and reached success in different fields. Even there are no so many of them, this is a big step ahead.

Very light and passionate writing, Bitani!

Warmest greetings,
Iryna

bitani's picture

thanks

Thank you Iryna for the kind words :)

Dear Bayan,

I was personally touched by your piece. Here in Sudan women have been denied jobs because of not being veiled. Personally I was harassed and forced to wear Hijab in order to get a permanent job contract in a governmental institution. Unveiled women and girls in Sudan have been arrested and lashed for disturbing the public feelings while rapists are allowed to be set free. Women should be allowed to chose whatever they want to so or dress. your veil doesn't make you less a woman as well as not wearing veil doesn't make me less Muslim.
Thank you for bringing this personal reflections and ideas about women in Lebanon.
P.S I'm a fan of Tony Khalifa as well :)

love and respect,

Yosra Akasha, Sudan

bitani's picture

thank you

Thank you Yusra for your comments. yes, indeed it is wrong to do it the other way around and force women to veil as the case was in afghanistan, and, as i hear from you, in Sudan. I will appreciate if you sign the petition for, though it is on veiled women, it's wider theme is to end discrimination in all its forms, of which including the other way around.

my warmest regards,

Bayan

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Thank You, Bayan . . .

. . . thank you for this eye-opening piece, which clarifies the matter of women being discriminated against for wearing their veil. Your writing is strong and clear and your information enlightening. I, too, had thought more about the reverse situation -- brought to light by Yosra's response above -- that women are subjected to injustices for being "unveiled." Thus I am very grateful that you're shedding light on the other half of this issue.

Your quote from Khodr throws further light on this subject and makes perfect sense: “A women’s beauty is her first weapon in the society,” as Khodr puts it, “but when you wear a veil you have lost this weapon and you are obliged to work on your insight, intellect, and behavior,” she adds. The end point, as Khodr asserts, “the hijab will bring the best out of you.”

So, Bayan, thank you for opening my eyes and for all the work you've done on this excellent piece. May it help to bring about change for you and your countrywomen!

Respectfully,

Sarah

bitani's picture

Thank you for the kind reply,

Thank you for the kind reply, Sarah.

misscarly's picture

A new sense of urgency

Thank you Bayan for sharing your perspective on this important subject. Discrimination takes many forms and you have eloquently described another aspect, the discrimination of veiled women, and its effect on society. I appreciate how you have placed the subject into the wider context of the polarization of society. Understanding it in this way gives a new sense of urgency to a familiar topic. Continue your important work and share it with the world! I have signed the petition and look forward to reading more from you!

All the best, Carly

bitani's picture

Thank you Carly for all the

Thank you Carly for all the support and guidance

Y's picture

Please don't let what you are

Please don't let what you are allowed to distract you on your path, Bitani.

The first impression of who one is and what one stands for is presented by physical appearances, including one's attire. Especially in the media, it is important to be perceived as neutral in order to gain the relaxed trust of others to share what they see, think, and believe. I purposely wear nothing that indicates my belief system, as I don't want to short-circuit communication with preconceived notions about me and my reactions to others. I spent many years wearing Catholic school uniforms, and have had to adhere to many dress codes for many different jobs. Who I am and how I use my skills are more important for me to share than is my independence in mode of attire.

A wolf catches more lambs when wearing the disguise of being a a fellow lamb. Your photograph says that you are beautiful. With or without your veil, your intellect, education, and ambition will triumph, as long as you stay focused on your most important goals.

Blessings to you.
Yvette

Y

bitani's picture

Thank you Yvette for passing

Thank you Yvette for passing by. Yes, you are right that a dress code leads to preconceptions on people.

my warmest regards,

Bayan

Y's picture

We all have to decide what is

We all have to decide what is most important, the person or the packaging. I dress in a manner that helps me blend in with my environment wherever I go so that I will not be noticed as I observe others. In this manner I learn much from others.

Y

Monica09's picture

Discrimination based on attire

Dear Bitani,

Thank you for highlighting this important issue!

Before anything else, I must say- you're beautiful (and I hope you say it out loud for yourself)! Let's start accepting a new paradigm of beauty, whereby we view all of God's creations (including ourselves) as beautiful.

I wear a scarf by choice, so I found this topic relevant. I feel there are 2 issues that need to be tackled:
1) discrimination based on attire; and
2) misconceptions surrounding hijab and the Muslim community in general.

People often associate hijab with radical interpretations or understand it within a religious/cultural context, whereas in reality, the person wearing it might be wearing it for simple reasons such as one's own perceived style/beauty/sense of modesty.

I have not been discriminated upon to the extent of not being hired. I am sad it is a reality for many women and I wish the situation gets better.

In solidarity,
Monica

bitani's picture

Thank you Monica for your

Thank you Monica for your kind reply. You are right in the two points you make. I personally tend to believe that this is an unconscious consequence of the radical interpretations to hijab and Islam in general.

warmest regards,

Bayan

Monica09's picture

Twitter campaign

You're welcome!

Meanwhile, this might be of some interest to you: http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201308192111-0022988

You might want to Tweet your article with the hash-tag provided in the news above.

Best wishes,
Monica

bitani's picture

thanks Monica yes this is

thanks Monica yes this is greatly important! thanks for noting it down here..

Usha RS's picture

Great and solutions oriented!

I appreciate your insight about the potential polarization of society into secular and religious based on the interpretation employers give to the hijab. And thank you for including the shocking statistics about the employment of women in Lebanon. Discrimination against women is clearly a problem, and discrimination against the veil or for the veil is part of that. Thank you for your petition and suggestions on how to counter this problem.
Usha xx

Let your light shine!

bitani's picture

thank you Usha for all the

thank you Usha for all the support, guidance, and care you've been offering me.

I am way blessed for having you as my vision mentor.

Greengirl's picture

Dear Bitani

I am glad I finally made out time to read your well written and eye opening story. I have always thought of Lebanon as a country where the hijab is celebrated,so I am completely taken aback to read about the alarming levels of discrimination faced by veiled women. It is sad that we continue to allow certain issues to polarize our world.

You deserve better! Please stay strong and be rest assured that your competence will eventually speak for you and earn you the kind of job you merit.

Thank you so much for the exposition.

Best Wishes,
Greengirl

bitani's picture

Thank you for the kind reply

Thank you for the kind reply greengirl.

yes, actually, there is a stereotype that countries here are more conservative/religious but actually it is the veiled who are negatively perceived and not vice versa as it may be implied.

Greengirl's picture

Dear Bitani

I am glad I finally made out time to read your well written and eye opening story. I have always thought of Lebanon as a country where the hijab is celebrated,so I am completely taken aback to read about the alarming levels of discrimination faced by veiled women. It is sad that we continue to allow certain issues to polarize our world.

You deserve better! Please stay strong and be rest assured that your competence will eventually speak for you and earn you the kind of job you merit.

Thank you so much for the exposition.

Best Wishes,
Greengirl

delphine criscenzo's picture

I support you!

Dear Bayan,

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. This is a great example of what living at the frontlines of an issue means. I highly appreciated your perspective and I am sorry you have had to adjust your dreams based on the discrimination that still exist.
I find it fascinating that for some you are not a worthy woman unless you wear the veil, while in the media, if you wear the veil you are considered to be making a political statement. What a bizarre dichotomy and a difficult situation to navigate.
I have heard over and over again, people in the West talk about how women should not be wearing the veil and should be free from religious oppression. I grew up in the South of France, which has a growing Muslim population and knew from first hand account that the women in my community did not feel oppressed by their religions. When I lived in Morocco, I was witnessed to some of the most amazing testimonies from women who wore the veil, as you said, for so many different reasons, none of them ever mentioned being forced to.
Again, thank you for sharing this important perspective and, I signed your petition! You rock Bayan!

Delphine Criscenzo
Online Training Coordinator
World Pulse
www.worldpulse.com

bitani's picture

thanks

Thank you Delphine for the kind and encouraging reply, and for signing the petition :)

warmest regards,
Bayan

Maura Bogue's picture

Well written

This is a well-written and compelling piece about women facing discrimination. You balance your experience with thoughts about the bigger picture well. Try to vary your language or address a point in one paragraph in the future so you can avoid repeating yourself with phrases such as "let me once again get back to my dream."

bitani's picture

thanks

Thank you Maura for devoting the time to read and comment on my piece. Much appreciated!

I see there is repetition of that phrase quite a lot, but i was inserting it intentionally so i keep myself linked to the issue no matter how general i get. I can see, however, i may have used different terms or got myself in the piece in other ways.

Thanks again,
Bayan

rabia.salihi's picture

Interesting!

You have pointed out an interesting topic because I have only known about discrimination against veiled women in secular societies but did not know about any society that was both secular and religious(polarization of such) or about the issue in such a country. In Afghanistan as a religious country there is discrimination against women who do not have a good hijab. And, you've written it very well. Thank you for sharing it.
Cheers,
Rabi

rabi

bitani's picture

thank you

thank you Rabia, it's so sweet to read these encouraging words

clarices's picture

What Does It Mean to Be Different?

Hello Bitani,

Thanks so much for your story! Very moving. It raises the question for me of what if means to be different, whether it comes from a religious perspective or some other value that a qualified and talented contributor presents. As you point out, there is a personal cost as well as a cost to society when organizations deny knowledge, experience and hard work, especially when it comes to chronicling the events of daily life. In the journalistic endeavor, the more diversity the better. Sadly in visual media, often homogeneity prevails.

Your resilience and decision to study sociology is inspiring. In this way, you are able to study and to tell the bigger stories of what happens in society, if not what is happening daily.

Best to you,
Clarice

bitani's picture

Thank you Clarice for your

Thank you Clarice for your kind reply :)

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