DUBAI (Reuters) – Aysha Obeid is hoping that job prospects in a Muslim country will improve for her now that she’s decided to abandon the veil which usually covers her face.
The 22-year-old says several potential employers in the United Arab Emirates have turned her down because she wore the niqab, a face veil that usually leaves only the eyes uncovered.
Obeid, a national of the UAE, now only wears the head scarf more commonly worn by Muslim women around the world.
“No one takes women with niqab in the retail sector,” said Obeid who unsuccessfully applied for jobs at two retail outlets. She is now looking for back office administrative jobs where she believes she may have more chance of being employed.
Many devout women in the conservative Arabian Peninsula wear the niqab, but most Muslim clerics say women are only required to wear a head scarf.
While objections to the niqab have stirred up controversy outside the Muslim world, women who cover their face in the region also say they have trouble getting jobs, particularly those requiring them to interact with the public.
“Women in niqabs do not sit at the counter. They take administrative jobs,” said Abdullah Naser, a manager at a Dubai post office. “Clients need to know who they are talking to.”
Face veils have been a hot political issue in Europe and parts of the Middle East over the rights of wearers to attend schools in secular societies or become policewomen, teachers and take other jobs which interact with the public while wearing the niqab or similar face-covering veils.
In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, a court ruled in June that a U.S.-accredited university in Cairo was wrong to bar a female scholar who wears a face veil.
Women make up a majority of job seekers in the Gulf state, according to Abdul-Rahim Sultan, a manager at Tanmia, a state body promoting employment of UAE nationals in the fast-growing economy where most jobs are held by foreign workers.
“Some companies have a policy preventing women from wearing their niqab during work hours, such as banks for example,” said Nora al-Bidour, public relations manager at Tanmia.
“Some foreign firms do not say they don’t hire women because of niqab. They avoid this subject for fear of being sued.”
It is common to see Emirati women in the workplace, most wearing elegant robes and head coverings, but those wearing the niqab are rarely seen in front offices.
While women who wear the niqab complain of difficulties, they say other problems including a state education system that does not meet employer standards is part of the problem.
For some wealthy women in niqab, investing in the Dubai stock exchange has proven to be an alternative to a steady job.
“In the bourse, I am free. I can come to the market whenever I want and I have time to take care of my family,” said Om Omar, who could not get a steady job. She said her friends, other housewives, invest large sums in the stock market.
“People think that if you wear the niqab you are stupid or narrow-minded,” Om Omar said. “Wearing the niqab is a form of personal freedom. It’s my choice.”