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The Equality and Human Rights Commission Wales’s Fairness not Favours report explores why faith-friendly workplaces matter and what can be done to create them. Sahar Al-Faifi features in the report and the Digital Story that accompanies it. Below, Sahar tells her story about her career and the importance of faith-friendly workplaces.
As a young girl, one of my biggest dreams was to study for a higher education degree and pursue a career in a field that I am passionate about – genetics. Genetics is the future of medicine, and understanding its complexity is one of the ways to treat cancer, which is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. I successfully applied to study for a Genetics degree at university, but the first thought that crossed my mind after gaining admission was how the university staff and students would treat me. I am a Muslim woman of colour, and I choose to wear the face-veil (Niqab), out of a conviction of faith and a way of worshipping God. Would my lecturers discriminate against me? Would I be an easy target for Islamophobes and racists? What about my safety? As much as I was happy to have been admitted on to the degree course, I felt vulnerable. This was especially due to the rise of Islamophobic abuse that was, and is, happening as a result of the media demonisation of Muslims and the negative remarks made by politicians, which generate fear amongst both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
I have been the target of much Islamophobic verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse in the streets, shopping centres and hospitals, so much so that I don’t know what life is without it. I have had people call me a ‘terrorist’, ‘bomber’ or shouting, ‘Go back to your country!’ with such vitriol and even grossly swearing at me, at Islam and the holy book of Muslims, the Qur’an. It is excruciating to live with.
I remember considering quitting many times, thinking that the university would be just an additional place of abuse. I used to cry on my way to university, and if I had not had my supportive father who pushed me to face my fears courageously, I think I would have turned for home at the door steps of my university building. During my time in university, I never faced discrimination from the staff or lecturers. In fact, my personal tutor went to great lengths to support me, well above and beyond his job description. I conquered all my fears, relentlessly continued my education, successfully graduated in the field of genetics and followed it up with an MSc in Biomedical Sciences. I cannot forget what my father said to me when he first saw me in my graduation gown: “Sahar, you are my living dream, and you made me proud!” I will never forget my father’s words and precious tears during my graduation ceremony.
However, soon after graduation the struggle of finding a job began. At the beginning, I was not short-listed for any job I applied for, so I took my CV to one of my supervisors asking for it to be reviewed. The first thing she said: “Sahar, your CV is good and your work with the Muslim community illustrates excellent leadership, organisation and communication skills. But is too ‘Islamic,’ and in the current hostile environment concerning Muslims, you cannot get anywhere with it.”
I should not have been surprised: according to research conducted by Dr Nabil Khattab at Bristol University, British Muslims face some of the worst job discrimination of any minority. I reluctantly changed my CV, and was immediately short-listed and offered an interview. I was interviewed by a panel of three, one of which happened to be a Muslim. I recall very well how my concerns were allayed and my nerves were calmed just by seeing a Muslim there. I was offered the post and enjoyed working. Most of the staff members were immensely friendly, apart from a very few, who were insidiously making racist judgments and preventing me from progressing in my career.
Through this struggle, I learnt two major things. The first is to know my rights well and challenge those who impinge upon them, and secondly I learnt that if institutions, companies, and public services are striving to reflect the diverse ethnic and religious make up of their communities, they must not only recruit people from those disadvantaged minorities but also harness their skills, allowing career progression. Indeed, having staff members from ethnic and religious minorities at senior positions sets a good example and inspires their fellow members to work hard, achieve their goals, and participate in public life. There are young Muslim girls who think they cannot seek higher education or get a job unless they take off their hijab (Islamic head-scarf), and others who compromise and wear hats or caps so they won’t be seen as Muslim. For many Muslim women, wearing the Niqab or Hijab is not only an act of worship (which is the main reason) but is also part of their identity. Just imagine how cruel it is to deprive someone of their belief or identity!
Thankfully, I am now a professional Molecular Geneticist, working in an oncology department to improve cancer patients’ quality of life. I am fortunate to be seen as an inspiration for some young Muslim girls who come to me for advice, and so I have made it my mission to mentor these young girls, as well as fight hate and xenophobia, until we are accepted for who we are.