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Navigating culture, career, and faith: Challenges faced by Muslim women academics in South Africa

Azra Hoosen |
4 April 2024 | 16:00 CAT
4 min read

Muslim women academics in South Africa face significant hurdles as they strive to balance their cultural, professional, and religious identities. From workplace discrimination to societal expectations, Dr Quraisha Dawood sheds light on the struggles these women encounter.

“As a Muslim woman academic myself, I always think as a sociologist and a writer about experiences. When chatting to a colleague from Malaysia about Muslim women and identity, particularly in academia, we agreed that women, in general, have to work twice as hard for the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And Muslim women have further hurdles than that because religion is such a part of our daily lives, in terms of dressing, a place for Sallah (prayer) and being moms as well, thus leading me to do this research where I interviewed about 10 Muslim academics from around SA,” Dr Dawood said.

She considers herself lucky to reside and work in Durban, where she said, “Halal is not a foreign concept”. However, she pointed out that she has colleagues who face difficulties when it comes to Halal options. “Muslim women tend to be apologetic and choose vegetarian food options. They have to compromise on shaking hands with men and encounter difficulties with praying due to not having a designated place for Sallah. There are spaces of exclusion that you adapt to and accept. But in spaces in universities and institutions that are supposed to be inclusive, we shouldn’t have to accept those things. These are some issues Muslim women grapple with on a daily basis,” she said.

According to Dawood, despite Muslim women’s impactful contributions to historical movements like ending apartheid and ongoing advocacy for justice, they still combat stereotypes surrounding their supposed oppression solely due to the hijab. However, within tertiary institutions, barriers persist that exclude them from research opportunities, hinder the expression of identity, and limit networking. She highlighted that these obstacles range from overt discrimination, such as being barred from university entrances for wearing the niqab, to subtler forms, like exclusion from social events or professional conferences due to cultural or religious practices. Moreover, she emphasised that they often face heavy teaching loads, leaving little time for research or career advancement.

She said that when you get little jabs at work and sarcastic comments, for example, when wearing a black cloak and getting told you look scary, and you don’t know how to react; in those moments, it’s important to involve someone in the conversation rather than laughing it off.

Dawood suggests that during Ramadan when asked about the strictness of religion due to fasting even from water, Muslim women have an opportunity for dialogue about their faith. This opens the door to discussing necessary workplace accommodations for Muslim women, showcasing aspects that need improvement.

“The Muslim women’s identity is very much tied to being the Queen of your home and being a mother. If a woman chooses to stay at home during the holidays instead of going to a conference, it should not be seen as an opportunity that is limiting. Those mindsets shouldn’t be seen as being backwards. Covering your hair or being at home shouldn’t be looked down on because it’s different from Western ideology,” she explained.

She emphasised that there is an assumption that Islamic laws are oppressive and a man dictates how a woman dresses. However, the way a woman dresses is influenced by her relationship with her creator.

“Work towards building your community in the universities, into getting into higher positions, do research on this stuff, don’t just focus on writing for academic journals but write opinion pieces in newspapers and bring into the public sphere, this will hopefully start conversations and build networks around the country,” she said.

Dawood proposes short-term solutions, like increasing halal vendors, providing spaces for ablution and prayer, and hosting diversity workshops to raise awareness. However, she acknowledges the challenge of shifting mindsets due to the minority status of Muslim women academics. Nonetheless, she emphasises that these small changes can foster greater inclusivity within academic environments.

Dr Quraisha Dawood advocates for recognising and addressing these systemic inequalities to create a more inclusive and equitable academic environment.

LISTEN to the full interview with Muallimah Annisa Essack and Dr Quraisha Dawood, Author and Deputy Dean of Research at the IIE Varsity College, here.


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