Guest Post: Polarized Realities: Living a Theo-secular Purgatory in the Workplace

Zeina Shaaban is a graphic designer with interests in English and creative writing. Her approach to Islam is graced with wisdom, serenity, knowledge, and understanding. Those of you who have read this website for quite some time might be familiar with her; you’ve met Zeina before, and, as she has been a friend very close to my heart for nearly four years, it pleases me to introduce her to this space again, this time as a guest writer. Deeply invested in women’s security and freedom, Zeina has actively campaigned for legal consequences for abusive and controlling men, so that women can continue to live full, fulfilling lives that rival the liberation enjoyed by their male counterparts. Her exegesis of Islamic texts is caring, compassionate, sensitive, and highly detailed. In the tradition of the Prophet and early scholars, Zeina incorporates the contextual realities of century and society into her interpretations, and, most notably, an awareness of the spectrum of linguistic possibilities, to bring to life an Islam that is both sensible and sensitive.

For all her resilience of character, please welcome Zeina Shaaban.

There is a certain drive to modernity in Lebanon that is heavily associated with secularism. Or should I say, anti-theism. This is manifest in a way where all things religious are looked down on or automatically associated with backwardness and closed-mindedness. Of course, this also means that the religious frown down upon this modernity for that very same association. And the rest of us who don’t belong to either polars, get sucked into the purgatory of their in-between.

Sexism in the workplace is pretty much commonplace everywhere. But, at the very least, you would think that in an Arab country like Lebanon, worrying about things like wearing the headscarf wouldn’t be an issue. And you wouldn’t be farther from the truth.

I mean, sure, I get it. Sectarianism has really done its job screwing this country up and leaving us where we are today. I get this wanting to completely dissociate from it, and all things related: religion. And in attempts to move forward, you want to move past all of this rubble. That’s great, really. The problem comes in with the ostentatious know-it-all attitude, and in the shoving this worldview down people’s throat. “We don’t believe in it, so you’re not allowed to believe in it either/not allowed to display any sign that you believe in it.”

A young woman who was traveling to Canada saw the stark difference in university classes. When in Canada, she was not only allowed, but respected for asking for a small time-window to pray, in Lebanon, you are not even allowed out of class for Friday prayers. Because prayer is stupid, and doesn’t belong here, so we won’t tolerate it nor will we allow you to cultivate it.

Taking this conversation into the workplace: A flabbergasting amount of companies in Lebanon have completely forbidden all religious symbols. This basically means necklaces with a cross, and the veil, among other examples. It is interesting to note how the symbols they are restricting are conveniently symbols donned by women usually. And this becomes just another way of controlling women and what they can and can not wear/do.

I have often daydreamed about interviews where the interviewer would ask about my veil and I would look at him, shocked, “Veiled? I’m not veiled!” and would tell him that I’m wearing this scarf for beauty/fashion purposes. Or an interviewer asking me whether I would take the veil off, and I would say yes. Then come into work with a hat on that serves the same purpose but does not fall under their category of “religious symbol.” I would wonder if they would create a new “no hats” rule just for me. There is something very horrible about the fact that I even have to consider scenarios like this in the first place. Something very flawed in that women are being forced to hide how they choose to represent themselves.

This is not reserved to the secular companies. As I said, Lebanon is very sectarian, and its political parties represent the sects of the country. Then, you have major corporations who will support a certain political party as a call-out to their sect. This means there are big companies in Lebanon that associate with the Sunni political leader(s) and the Shiite political leader(s) (this also means that they probably have shares/have invested in the corporation in exchange for this support.) I am only focusing on the Muslim sects because I am discussing the issue of the veil, but the above also applies to Christian political leaders as well. However, even in those companies where they are supposedly by the Muslims and for the Muslims, the veil is still not allowed. (Note: This is a generalization and is certainly not true in all cases, there are even companies that ONLY hire veiled women, and here the issue is the same, only reversed.) Banks, TV shows, you name it, all those bigshot places where men and women are the company representatives, the veil is not even up for discussion.

This, and we did not even go into the default disadvantage we’re at for simply having two X chromosomes. The major I studied has a ratio of 5:1 women to men in classes on average. You would think that this means women would only naturally be more dominant/present in the workforce. However, what I’ve noticed is that: Sure, almost all the designers, the employees, are women. But almost all the creative directors, the CEOs, are men. Men who probably don’t even realize their privilege of not having to push against an almost unbreakable glass ceiling to get to where they are, and presumptuously attribute it to their own mastery.

In other majors, where there is a more balanced ratio, or in a ratio where the men rank out higher, companies will almost always prefer the men. Their rationale supposedly has nothing to do with sexism, too. It’s simply the more convenient choice.

Hiring a woman means she might get married one day/get pregnant if she is married, and leave the job to take care of her children, so she is not worth a long-term investment.
Hiring a woman means she can’t go to Saudi Arabia alone because they forbid traveling without a mahram (a male relative or husband).
Hiring a woman means her husband/father will not let her stay late at work and so she won’t be able to carry the unthinkable load we want to put on our employees
Hiring a woman means her husband/father won’t allow her to travel, and so she won’t be able to carry out some projects through till the end
Hiring a woman means you have to worry about her getting raped when she goes to construction scenes/is a liability
Hiring a woman means you have to tolerate one regular day a month when she might not come into work because she is in too much pain
Hiring a woman means you will be subject to her regular mood swings, and cat fights with other women, because women are more emotional and not as professional as men

Most of these points are riddled with sexist thoughts and assumptions. And it’s because men themselves perpetuate those thoughts that they expect it of the men in the women’s lives also. As a man, he expects his wife and daughter to be stay-at-home moms, or do a job that doesn’t disrupt her “household duties”; he will not allow her to travel or stay late at work, and most certainly won’t allow her onto construction sites and the like. As a result, he will most certainly assume that not only is it the correct way to go about things, but that ALL men of the country will treat their wife/daughter the same way.

So they will hire women, but they will hire just enough to make them look like an equal-opportunity employer, then move on to giving all the spots to men, because it’s more convenient.

This is why in an interview, before I am asked to show my work or share my experience, I am asked (after the interviewer noted that I am a newly wed) whether I have a curfew or should be at home a certain time (read: what is the latest that your husband allows you to stay out?). I can hardly contain my disdained surprise in my response: “Who the hell do you think I married?” The reason this is so problematic is because it can be two-fold: The interviewer can either be of the religious/conservative party and asks this question because he actually perpetuates it and believes in it, and my response to him is “Your standards do not apply to me,” – or he can be of the anti-theist party, and the question carries an undertone of cynicism. He carries with him the assumption that all (backward) veiled ladies would only marry (backward) religious men who do not allow them to work after sundown. Considering the pretentious tone with which the question was asked, I would say it’s the latter.

So my being a veiled married woman ends up putting me at a triple disadvantage in the workforce, before the employer even opens up my portfolio. I am sure that this purgatory where the religious and the modern do not clash in arms has a whole community of people, who, like me, are fed up with not pleasing either side of the spectrum and not belonging anywhere. And this community should have its own companies and its own vision for how they perceive the future.

This is a community I would like to foster.

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Polarized Realities: Living a Theo-secular Purgatory in the Workplace

  1. Shybiker

    Wow, thank for this information. What a rough road you travel. I agree with you that secular intolerance of religious belief is wrong and an unwarranted overreaction to conservative fundamentalism.


  2. I think everyone who is from a minority community working in a majoriatrian society faces similar problems, equally true for Hindu polytheists working in the Gulf states. The only answer can be in laws that outlaw discrimination in all situations and enforcement of anti-discriminatory laws.


  3. Mel

    Great post! Just goes to show that all these laws that are supposed to “protect” people are really just about policing women, and more than that, policing women’s ideas and expression. We won’t live in a truly liberated world until women aren’t faced with pressures attempting to curb their autonomy,


  4. Very well-written and highly informative post. Now my inner academic will shut up,and I’ll add that my privilege as a white woman in the US has just become even more glaringly obvious. I admire your courage to stand firm in the face of bigotry and sexism, and wish it could be distributed so all women might gain a little for themselves. Strive on! :-)


  5. rootedinbeing

    Zeina!!! ***Stands up and claps***

    Thank you so much for sharing a piece of your reality.

    “Deeply invested in women’s security and freedom, Zeina has actively campaigned for legal consequences for abusive and controlling men, so that women can continue to live full, fulfilling lives that rival the liberation enjoyed by their male counterparts.”

    How has that battle gone?

    When asked such discriminatory questions in an interview it must call for defying feats of the mind. First, figuring out the interviewer’s angle, and then answering in a way that skirts the politics of the question.

    What about going to interviews without a wedding ring on, or whatever other signifier one has to show they are married? Or does it not matter because if not married, then the interviewer assumes she is living at home under the rule of her father, therefore the same questions apply regardless?

    In the U.S. the big ones for women are if they are married, of childbearing age, or already have kids. All things that would bring down their productivity. The interesting thing I’ve found with men, though, is it benefits them to wear their wedding ring to interviews and discuss their “married lives” and children because it means they are “stable” and have a greater reason to work hard (gotta provide for their family).


    1. *blushes*
      I just read these!!

      The battle has gone both well and awry. On one hand, we managed to put through the law of protecting women from DV. Currently, there is a section after local news of 10 minutes or so explaining to women how they can use this law to their benefit, what they need to know, etc. On the other hand, in order to get the law through in the first place took years and years, but more troublesome are the changes that had to be made to the law. Things like “marital rape” had to be rewritten to avoid the word “rape”, because “rape within marriage doesn’t exist”. Some vital articles in the law basically lost their value. But hey, at least it’s still one step in the right direction.

      I usually try researching the company/founder before I go to the job interview to try and get a glimpse of where they’re coming from, but it doesn’t always get you somewhere. I’d figured out from his tone of voice and the way that he was asking that he’s the anti-theist, Islamophobe kind of person.

      Like, I told him I researched what they did and asked about their brands (which included a lingerie brand). Literally, one minute later, he asks if I mind working on anything from a “religious” point of view. Again, I’d find this very nice of a person to ask, but he wasn’t asking to be courteous. He was asking to test to see how “Islamist”/closedminded/old-fashioned am I? So I reply to him like “As an employee, I’ll work on whatever project that comes my way because that is the *professional* thing to do. However, if I was given a choice on the matter (there’s more than one project/it’s not within the company, etc), I would rather not working on alcohol brands.”

      Then, ignoring my answer, and ignoring my previous explanation about their work and that I’m well aware that they work with lingerie, he goes like “so you don’t mind working with nudity? Because we have a lingerie brand”.
      I just sort of dryly replied “No, I already mentioned what I would possibly mind working on, and it’s not lingerie.” Then he pauses and mumbles to himself “Yeah, unlike them, you did shake my hand when you came in”. I was stumped. Them??? Who’s them, those horrible hijabis that you clumped into one box??

      Wedding band makes no difference because if you didn’t know I was married, you wouldn’t know from my ring (it could easily be confused with a regular ornamental ring.) But the country is very small, (the design industry is ten times smaller) and word gets around. Not to mention I have my facebook profile set to public, so he can find out with a few clicks. Though, when he brought up that I’m married, I did have that look that this is completely irrelevant and why the fuck do you know this? And yes, even if not married, the assumption will be deferred to the father figure (But a husband a much more controlling figure than the father is to his adult child).


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