For many Muslim women, the idea of hijab is often in the forefront of their minds – whether they want it to be or not. For those women considering donning the hijab in the workplace, the idea of covering their heads is not only something to be addressed as a faith issue, but it also creates another complex layer regarding their feelings about the hijab and how it fits into their lives.
Now, after Sonia Martinez, a Muslim hijabi woman, was singled out and openly shunned on Facebook for wearing a hijab while driving for Uber and thus openly proclaiming her religion, the issue of “working while covered” is not only a Muslim women’s issue but also one shoved to the forefront of American society. With the issue so public, many women are relating their struggles and explaining how they made their decisions regarding hijabs at work.
Convert Kelly Mitz wears the hijab and has done so since she accepted Islam. However, in her role as a team manager for a major, nationwide communications company she puts her hijab aside, opting to remove it before she gets out of her car.
“Some people at work know that I’m Muslim and everyone is fine with it, but I’ve never covered my hair at work,” said Mitz. “I’m not sure how anyone will react, and I don’t necessarily think it will be bad, but for me I just feel that I may not be taken as seriously if I cover my hair. I know it’s wrong, but I’m a manager and a lot of time I have meetings with other managers who are above me and I just don’t feel comfortable wearing hijab.”
Mitz is not alone in her hesitation. In fact, many women have reported removing their hijab when it comes to work or work functions. And though many of them feel guilty about, they say they have to take into consideration where they are.
Melissa Wright understands the skittishness some women feel. When she converted nearly a decade ago, she held a position where she was often called on to deal with outside clients, many of whom had no knowledge of her conversion or any way to suspect she might be Muslim.
“When I made the decision to convert I knew that I would wear the hijab,” she said. “I converted on a Sunday and Monday I had to walk into my office with it on and, let me tell you, everyone was staring. One of my co-workers even came up to me and gave me a hug, as if she were trying to comfort me. It was weird, but I just went with it and took it as a nice gesture.”
That awkwardness continued not only with meeting new clients but with those who knew her pre-conversion.
“Whenever I walked in for a meeting you could see the look of surprise,” Wright said. “But it was just something I had to smile through and deal with.”
In fact, Wright said she believes it was her confidence and good humor about the situation that allowed everyone to quickly warm to her new look and, as she put it, “Get over it and get on with it.”
“If I acted weird about it then everyone else would too,” she said. “So if anyone asked a question I would answer it quickly and then get back to work. People eventually got used to it.”
However, as regards to Martinez’ public shaming on Facebook, Wright said it’s the support of fellow Muslim women and increased visibility of hijabi women in the workplace that will slowly change the tide for those who have a negative perception of covered women or Islam in general. She said she’s witnessed what such support can do for others when they’re grappling with the decision about whether or not to wear a head scarf at their place of business.
“Right after I converted I went to see a friend who was a Muslim but who didn’t wear hijab because she thought she would be a target with it in this country,” Wright related. “But after seeing me, a convert, wearing mine she started wearing it full time. She even wore it at work when I told her that I walked right into my office with it as soon as I converted. She couldn’t believe it was no big deal for me and that no one was mean to me about it.”
As for Martinez, in a recent interview she said Uber has been supportive of her right to drive while wearing her hijab and promised to investigate the women who verbally abused her on Facebook.