Twice able, half chosen: Indian Muslim women face systematic bias finding employment

An Indian Muslim woman protester wearing Indian national flag scarf and holds Indian national flag as she takes part in a protest demonstration at the protest site at Shaheen Bagh area
5 min read
23 November, 2022

Azba Rahman, a 22- year old Muslim woman who lives in New Delhi, applied for dozens of jobs in 2019. Each time she was rejected. 

Azba has a degree in Business Administration and was an active member of WhatsApp groups that advertise and advise recent graduates from 'other' Indian religions trying to find employment. Azba knew from her qualifications that she was more qualified than most. 

"After a while, I began to realise that those with less experience would be called to interview, but none of them were Muslims," Azba told The New Arab. She wouldn't even get a confirmation email or follow-up reply. 

"I thought I was getting a good vibe [from the interview]. She told me my CV was good but then asked if I'd wear my hijab when working, and whether I'd be comfortable taking it off"

"My self-confidence began to decline, I thought I wasn't capable. I wasn't able to explain to my parents what was happening," she adds.

But a recent study published in June 2022 by LedBy Foundation – a leadership incubator that focuses on the professional development of Muslims – seems to have vindicated her worries. 

The study revealed the challenges, discrimination and bias that Muslim women face in the hiring process, focusing on instances where Muslim women were equally qualified for the job. 

To prove this, LedBy Foundation created two, almost identical CVs, for entry-level roles in India. The profiles had similar colleges, similar cities, and similar skills. The only difference was in their names: one had a Muslim name 'Habiba Ali', and the other a Hindu, 'Priyanka Sharma'."

Over the course of 10 months, LedBy Foundation sent 2,000 job applications to 1,000 job postings on job search sites like LinkedIn and, with two dummy profiles.

The main goal of this research was to ascertain the net discrimination percentage, by using the number of positive responses to both candidates. Of the 1,000 jobs applied, Priyanka received 208 positive responses, while Habiba received 103 positive responses. The research showed that for every positive response that a Muslim woman gets while applying for a job, a Hindu woman gets approximately two positive responses.

It found a net discrimination rate for Indian Muslim women relative to Hindu women at 47.1% and a massive discrepancy between callbacks for Muslim and Hindu women.

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Lubna Rahman, a 28-year-old dentistry hopeful and hijab wearer, applied for jobs in clinics through online and physical means. Lubna would never get a callback from clinics where she appeared physically, despite initial interviews going well. 

In one instance, when Lubna applied for a job in western Maharashtra, Lubna was told she didn't stand a chance. "I had a good conversation with her, I thought I was getting a good vibe [from the interview]. She told me my CV was good but then asked if I'd wear my hijab when working, and whether I'd be comfortable taking it off."

Lubna told The New Arab that she knows many Indian Muslim women who have faced such subtle discrimination, and they often remain silent. "I even know women who have had to give up wearing the hijab to find employment, I don't blame them as they need to support themselves," she said. 

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Indian Muslim women are already behind national rates of literacy. According to UNESCO, the women’s literacy rate in India is 62.8 percent but that of Muslim women was only about 52 percent, one of the lowest in India in terms of demographics. 

The 2011 population census stated that 50 million Muslim women were of working age (15-65 years old) in India. However, a staggering 70 percent of them have been confined to household work compared to the national average of 51 percent, as per the study.

Many blame India's ruling party, the BJP, for the state of bias toward the Muslim community, with the party pursuing a staunch Hindu nationalist agenda since coming to power. Muslims have been subjected to systematic discrimination, and the county commonly experiences instances of violence toward Muslims. 

Whilst incidents against Muslims are well documented, the specific targeting of Muslim women – who are doubly marginalised – often goes unnoticed. 

"We've always had anti-Muslim prejudice, but in the last decade or so there has been a surge of legitimised attacks, spurred on through the media. This has emboldened these figures, and Islamophobia is no longer considered to be a shameful thought," said Asim Ali, a political researcher in India. 

Recently in southern India’s Karnataka, the hijab was banned in schools, and experts say that the controversial hijab issue is another example of the prevailing prejudice against Muslim women.

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"What these hijab controversies do is that they have associated hijab-wearing Muslim women as uncompromising, fundamentalist trouble-makers because the popular mind in India does understand the concept of minorities asserting their rights. Whether it be school, family, company or any institution, [they] will seek to stamp out any non-conformist tendencies," Ali told The New Arab.

Founding member of LBF, Dr Ruha Shadab told The New Arab that the feminist movement in India should be louder and more vocal about different socio-cultural religious groups within India.

“You don’t want female inclusion in India to propagate the same religious, regional caste language etc that current disparities exist along with Muslims."

Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir and reports on politics, health, insurgency, human rights and gender

Follow her on Twitter: @ainulrhbr