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Hard work

July 10, 2011

They are ambitious, well-educated and jobless. In Germany, a rising number of skilled Muslims are complaining of discrimination. Women wearing a headscarf feel especially excluded from the job market.

Job applicant Ismahen Dabbach
Ismahen Dabbach wants to wear her headscarf at workImage: DW

"My name is Ismahen Dabbach, I am 26 years old, I was born in Germany and I am a trained office clerk. I am very flexible, independent and open to everything that carries me further forward in life."

This is how Ismahen Dabbach describes herself in job interviews. She is wearing a light-blue shirt and a black woolen scarf that covers her hair, neck and shoulders - an outfit she would also choose when meeting her potential employer for the first time. But Dabbach, whose parents are Tunisian, feels that since she decided to wear the Muslim headscarf four months ago, her search for a job has become extremely difficult.

"Eight-hour job with headscarf"

"They put you on a waiting list, then they invite you and tell you that they will call you, but after three days you get a rejection letter. So you start asking yourself: did I make a mistake or is it the company's fault?," Dabbach asks and hunches her shoulders.

In a blue file she has collected about 30 rejection letters. She says that she lost track of how many applications she had written in the last few months and adds that before she was covering her hair, she didn't have any difficulty finding internships, part-time jobs and her apprenticeship in a logistics firm.

"I want to have a normal eight-hour-job, from eight to five, five days a week, where I can wear my headscarf, like an ordinary citizen," she says. Dabbach lives in the western German town of Gütersloh, but for a good job she would move anywhere in Germany.

Islamophobic job market?

women at conference
Skilled Muslim women struggle with stereotypesImage: DW

Dabbach is not the only skilled Muslim woman having trouble finding a job in Germany. In Dusseldorf, the North Rhine-Westphalian capital, about 80 people have gathered in a conference room where scientists, politicians, activists and Muslim social workers are discussing discrimination against Muslim women in the workplace.

One of the organizers is Erika Theissen. She has carefully matched the cream color of her headscarf to the rest of her outfit. Theissen converted to Islam in the 1980s and is now managing director of the Muslim Women's Center for Encounters and Further Education (BFmF) in Cologne.

It's one of the biggest associations for Muslim women in Germany. Today, over 50 Muslim women, some of them highly qualified, work in her center.

"People think, the Muslim community doesn't want Muslim women to work. But most Muslim women are not discriminated against by the Muslim community, but by society. Society is not open enough to let us work."

According to a 2010 nationwide poll by the research institute Infratest-dimap, more than one third of the respondents would prefer "a Germany without Islam."

Mario Peucker, researcher at the University of Melbourne
Peucker still sees a lot of prejudice in corporate GermanyImage: DW

Mario Peucker, a social scientist at the University of Melbourne, has studied the integration of Muslims in the German job market. He says that examples of discrimination in the workplace are hard to uncover, and it has not been possible yet to identify religion - rather than race or country of origin - as the source of discrimination in Germany.

Peucker says there are no hard figures yet, but studies and interviews with Muslim migrants show that women who wear a headscarf have hardly any chance of getting a job where a certain prestige is involved.

Esma May, whose parents are from Turkey is Muslim, but she has decided not to cover her hair. May is also a politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

"I am convinced that it is possible to have a career also on the German market, if you have the qualification, the motivation. It doesn't matter where you come from, it's just important what you make out of it," she says and makes a fist in the air and adds "Yes you can!"

Role models needed

Erika Theissen, managing director of the Muslim Women's Center for Encounter and Further Education, Cologne
Headscarves are not bad for business, says Erika TheissenImage: DW

Social scientist Mario Peucker does not share that optimism. He says that interviews with employers in small and medium-sized German companies have shown that some of them clearly show anti-Muslim tendencies. From interviews with employers he knows that some of them also think Muslims have a lower social capital and do not achieve as much as other applicants.

"Even if they don't have personal resentments, they may think that their customers or their staff might have a negative image of Muslims and this becomes their reason for not employing Muslim men or women," Peucker says.

He thinks that the German anti-discrimination law that was put in place in 2006 is efficient, but many people just don't know about it. He also says anonymous applications could be a way to fight discrimination, as the employer wouldn't see a name or photo on the applicant's resume.

But Erika Theissen thinks it's not enough. "I think the government must be a role model for those people who have the possibility to give jobs and then I hope, other people will think: ok, I can take a woman with a headscarf, it will not cause a big problem for my business."

Torn between two countries

Dabbach from Gütersloh has started searching the internet for jobs offered by Muslim companies. In recent years, a few websites have been launched that provide social platforms and job offers for Muslims.

And although some believe that these platforms reinforce the divisions in the labor market, Dabbach's online job ad was instantly successful. After three days, she got a job offer from abroad.

"What should I do now?," she asks, looking helpless. "I am at home in Germany, my family and friends are here. Should I just leave them? I am really torn."

Author: Julia Hahn
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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