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The Perils of The Hijab Economy

For a long time, Meryam Belmokhtar would undergo a painful transformation every workday morning. Parking at the office where she worked in human resources, in her hometown of Compiègne, some sixty kilometers outside of Paris, Belmokhtar, who is Muslim, would whip off her hijab, or Islamic headscarf, in the privacy of her car.

That act–the removal of the headscarf–soon became intolerable, a symbol of a split-screen life, where her work persona and her piety seemed irreconcilable. “Sometimes, I’d just sit in the car and cry,” she told me, when I visited the flat she shares with her family in the autumn of 2014.

Belmokhtar’s employers had no explicit rules against the hijab, but she knew it wouldn’t be welcomed. France, with its strong traditions of ‘laïcisme,”–a sort of muscular secularism–has long had a national tussle with the Muslim headscarf. The hijab is officially banned in schools and public offices, and unofficially frowned on in many workplaces. Gallic antipathy to public religion, on the one hand, and on its Muslim citizens, on the other, has hit French Muslim women’s careers hard, pushing women like Meryam back into the home, either as homemakers or self-employed entrepreneurs, or into back-office jobs like telemarketing. The result, from anecdotal reportage, has been a sort of “hijab economy,” where the Muslim women who choose to veil have had to make do with lower wages and lower career aspirations than their bare-headed peers. A study from the European Network Against Racism found that female job applicants with French names were 71 percent more likely to get interviews than women with names of Arabic origin, wearing hijabs. The same study found that 44 percent of employers in Belgium agree that wearing a hijab can reduce a candidate’s chances.

This “hijab economy” got a boost last month from the European Court of Justice. In a case brought by two women, one French, another Belgian, both fired for refusing to remove their hijabs on the job, the Court ruled that companies in the European Union can ban workers from wearing obvious religious symbols. Though the law applies to everything from large Christian crosses to Jewish men’s yarmulkes–and organizations from the Conference of European Rabbis to Amnesty International condemned it as having a chilling effect on religious freedom–everyone knew who the rule really targets: Muslim women wearing the hijab. Given the far right’s recent rise, the Court’s decision sounded lots like a judicial echo to the right-wing political blasts of Brexit and Trump. “By permitting a ban on the hijab, Europe is essentially permitting a ban on Muslim women in the workplace,” charged Iman Amrani in an op-ed in The Guardian.

Belmokhtar finally chose to leave her job, in favor of wearing the hijab. The choice took a long, painful time. Having studied languages at university, she’d dreamt of a career as a translator or teacher. “It would be a great thing for me,” she told me, pouring me tea in her pink-and-gold living room. “But it would be impossible, of course,” because of her hijab, which she loves wearing. Having done her time in HR, she did what she says many women facing the hijab-job choice do, and in 2012 went into business for herself. The living room where we sit doubles as the HQ of Candine Halal, Belmokhtar’s mail-order candy business. Knowing that many Muslims wished to avoid candies made with gelatin that contravenes Islamic dietary laws, she began selling halal–permissible–sweets, from chocolates to marshmallows and gummies–to customers in Europe and North America. Business is good, and she loves being able to spend more time at home with her teenagers and husband. Online, she’s connected with a number of other hijabi entrepreneurs, and says they form a “solidarity” network swapping advice and encouragement. She doesn’t seem bitter about her experience, and says that these fledgling businesses are proof that mainstream discrimination can’t stop minority progress: “We can work! We can do. Things. Whether you want it or not, we will work–and in our hijabs.”

Despite Belmokhtar’s optimism, I wonder what the barring veiled women from the work-place will do on a macroeconomic level. Keeping women secluded is a costly business. The man boasting to his golf club buddies that “my wife doesn’t work” knows this. So too, did pre-modern Muslim societies, in which veiling and seclusion were status symbols. Wealthy was the man who could afford to keep his wives and daughters veiled from public view. Richer still was the man who could afford a harem, and the money to build them a bath and hire servants to do the shopping. Poorer women had to wash in the baths and go to the bazaar. Much as in ancient Byzantium and Persia, to be the possessor of an invisible woman meant you were doing very well indeed.

Just as keeping women at home hurts a household’s economy, it hurts larger ones. The Hijab Economy, based on discrimination and exclusion, makes little business sense, if one believes the recent studies about the benefits of diversity on boards and in business. Like high walls and sealed borders, the European Court of Justice’s decision to uphold a supposedly ‘neutral’ dress code at the office could hurt business in the long run. Divisions of any kind are costly, as national economies built on discrimination show. Whether the divisions are those of gender, religion, or race, partitioning an economy drains resources. Lebanon’s confessional system, which divides citizens according to their faith, costs its inhabitants about $800 million over the course of an average lifetime, calculated economist Jad Chaaban. Apartheid ultimately squeezed the entire South African economy, noted economist Peter Lewin, hurting whites as well as the blacks. While the conventional wisdom was that the white control of resources would keep black labor costs low, the restrictions placed on blacks ultimately stunted it. Black laborers couldn’t move easily, either in South Africa, or up the job ladders, since top jobs were reserved for whites. It was inefficient, squandered talent, and led to skill shortages. “Apartheid,” writes Lewin, “is the antithesis of capitalism.”


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