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As a Muslim woman formally educated in non-minority institutes, it doesn’t take one long to notice the lack of Muslim people in fields of higher education and even in formal, white collar jobs. Being the only Muslim in a room is as strange an experience as it is common. There are imagined, unflattering standards in compliance with stereotypes that one is expected to hold up to.

In addition to this, the way campuses and formal workplaces are structured in India, it is impossible to not be very vigilant of your perceived Muslimness and consequently go out of your way to ensure elimination of all complaints regarding your work ethic(s). This has two unintended but interrelated consequences—one eventually starts feeling alienated from their peers, and it inevitably continues the cycle of exclusion of Muslims.

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Parcham, a Mumbai based feminist collective, in collaboration with Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, recently conducted a study on the state of Muslims in Indian workforce. The research was conducted through qualitative means, including focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. The aim of the study was twofold—to bring light to the lack of documentation of discrimination against Muslims, and advance solutions to curb said discrimination.

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Choose Your Plan!

Most participants of the study had similar complaints that echo throughout the Muslim community. From choosing an educational institute to sitting for an interview, one is made adamantly aware of their Muslim identity. According to the Sachar Committee Report, which is referenced throughout the Parcham study, there is an absence of Muslims from government jobs as well as formal sectors. The unemployment rate among Muslims is the highest in comparison to other Socio-Religious categories. The report describes a sense of perceived discrimination in the formal sector and consequent low return on education.

In addition to this, Action Aid India report conducted in 2012 reveals that 78.6% of Muslim households depend on casual wage labour.  

There are also laws safeguarding citizens against work place exploitation, as well as assurance of protection against sexual harassment for women in the workplace. There is, however, yet to be a law exclusively focused on discrimination against Muslims.

Educational Institutes: The First Sites of Discrimination 

Due to the lack of opportunities in arenas of formal employment, there is a growing skepticism towards investment in education. This belief is further strengthened by the development of an inverse relationship between Muslims and high-status jobs. Muslims have the highest proportion of youth who have never enrolled in formal education programs. Selecting a school and college for Muslims comes with the unique challenge of deciding between familiarity of a minority institute, or (a potentially unpleasant) exposure to a normal, more expensive one.

One woman participant of the Parcham Study reported picking Delhi University over Jamia Millia in order to break out of the traditionalism of a minority institute which often imitates the setting of Muslim ghettos that it is surrounded by. But at the same time, this ‘ghetto-isation’ of Muslims in urban cities like Delhi and Mumbai that came about after partition is continued through systems of prejudice that ensure low participation of Muslims in higher education and high paying formal jobs.

Another female student in the study reported being bullied by her peers, which almost compelled her to drop out. As a student of Delhi University myself, it’s not particularly appalling to learn about instances of harassment like these. In my very first month at one of the most liberal campuses in India, I was reminded to be ashamed of my Muslimness by my upper-caste classmates.

Sorry we don’t take Muslim people, they are very unhygienic,” is a sentence I learnt to ignore while looking for student accommodations in south Delhi. Migration to cities for college proves to be particularly difficult for muslim women, who in addition to fighting against conservative families are also forced to confront prejuidces in cities they migrate to. 

The male respondents of the study also reported being teased in schools due to circumcision. Sometimes, even the faculty acted out of prejudice, as one respondent recalls being asked questions unrelated to his course in an MBA interview.  

Muslims in Formal Sectors

What however has more grave economic repercussions is when these continue through one’s professional life. Most jobs in India are acquired through networks and connections which already disadvantages first generation Muslims entering the formal work market for the first time. The hiring procedure proves to be a hurdle for even well connected Muslims. Thorat and Attewell’s study has outlined that for every 10 upper caste Hindu applications selected for interview, only six Dalit applications and three Muslim applications are selected despite being identical. On an average, only 2% of the senior staff in BSE 500 and BSE 200 companies is Muslim.

While none of the respondents in the Parcham study reported any direct instances of discrimination, they confirmed to have faced subtle microagressions. All respondents also reported being very vigilant of their identity as Muslim and going up and beyond to ensure that no coworker has any excuse to be hostile towards them.

Despite their best attempts, this sometimes proved to be unavoidable. Incidents like the media’s reportage of Tablighi Jamaat caused tensions in the workplace, mentions one respondent. Another reports of Islamophobic comments hurled against her in subtlety. All respondents confirmed having to ignore these occurrences in order to continue working at the job.

Also read: The Colonialism At Play In The Female Workplace Fashion

Muslim Women

According to the 2011 census, Muslim women are more likely to work in home-based manufacturing, while Hindu women are more likely to work in public and social services. The 50th National Sample Survey outlines that only 16% Muslim women are employed. Literacy rate for Muslim women is lower than for women of any other of religious groups. The most common explanation employed to understand these trends is related to Muslim cultural norms.

Lower participation of Muslim women in labour forces, in politics, in positions of economic leadership, in high-status jobs is speculated to be due to seclusion of women in Islam. Policy makers in India steer clear of addressing this at risk of interfering with religious laws. This has led to a vacuum in advancing solutions to improve the status of Muslim women.   

Incidents like the media’s reportage of Tablighi Jamaat caused tensions in the workplace, mentions one respondent. Another reports of Islamophobic comments hurled against her in subtlety. All respondents confirmed having to ignore these occurrences in order to continue working at the job.

How to Fix This: Recommendations by Parcham

Laws in India safeguard citizens against discrimination through Article 14, Article 15, and Article 16 of the Indian constitution. There are also laws safeguarding citizens against work place exploitation, as well as assurance of protection against sexual harassment for women in the workplace. There is, however, yet to be a law exclusively focused on discrimination against Muslims. Revising and reconstructing laws as well as social policies in a way that empower an socially and economically disadvantaged group like Muslims is critical.

The Parcham study provides several recommendations to fix this. It outlines the need for the government to revise its Equal Opportunity Commission set up by the Ministry of Minority Affairs in 2008, with special emphasis on the need to restructure the grievances model since it makes an employee reluctant to make a complaint fearing for his future career prospects. The study strongly reiterated the recommendations made by the Sachar Committee, including the need to implement a diversity index, which will provide incentives to organizations to hire a more diverse workforce. 

There is a need to extend affirmative action programs employed to benefit Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to Muslims as well. Since it is not the lack of capacity but the lack of opportunity and exposure that leads to low participation in employment, on the job training would prove to be incredibly productive. Setting up of a national data bank where all information pertaining to the educational status of all socio-religious communities would aid policy makers and the state to make better laws to benefit minorities.

Schools and colleges become breeding grounds for Islamophobia if stereotypes are not challenged and questioned. Hence it is critical to employ programs of diversity and inclusion on all educational levels. Muslims who are the first in their families to receive education lack guidance to help choose college and future career. Employing counsellors in school who help students assess their options is also strongly recommended.    

Also read: ‘Period Leave’, Period. Unlearning The Bias Against Menstruation At Workplace


While the study focuses on experiences of Muslim people who are employed in formal sectors, it is important to note the scarcity of these numbers. A systematic and institutionalised push towards Muslim economic regression is materialised through exclusion from these sectors. An insidious continuation of these systems in a self-sustaining cyclic pattern discourages Muslim participation all together.

To tackle these issues, it is first important that they are brought to the mainstream, which is what Parcham attempts to do. An economically empowered Muslim class should be pivotal to the goals of India as a nation.

Note: The data sets cited on this article has been sourced from the Parcham Report, which can be accessed here.

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  1. Thank you Halima for writing about the study. We are continuing with the documentation of incidents of discrimination / harrasment. We would love to speak with those willing to share their stories, or one can leave annonymous submissions here – The idea is to visibilise the incidents so that people realise that certain behaviour or ‘jokes’ are not ok as well as to draw attention to the issue.


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