The Triple Jeopardy for Muslim Women in Educational Leadership

By Shasha Dhesi

Royal Leamington Spa, ENG, GB
    The Triple Jeopardy for Muslim Women in Educational Leadership

    About the Practitioner-Researcher

    Shasha Dhesi
    Academic Coordinator/ ESL Instructor
    Royal Leamington Spa, ENG, GB
    Shasha Dhesi

    I've been in education for 7 years and worked in both the UK and the Middle East, as an ESL instructor and Academic Coordinator. I have recently completed an MA in Educational Leadership & Management (University of Nottingham, UK). During my studies, I was intrigued by the research surrounding intersectionality, as it relates to my own experiences as an ethnic minority female. I've felt compelled to investigate and report the experiences of Muslim women in leadership, due to my experience of working in the Middle East, as well as my own experiences of working in the UK as a Muslim. My research interests include: Educational leadership & cultural contexts; Gender, race, ethnicity and faith as intersections in leadership; The role of women in Islam; Faith and identity; cultural/ belief systems in educational leadership.

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    Project Summary
    The aim of this research was to explore real life experiences of Muslim women in education and educational leadership. It aims to promote an awareness and discussion of the unique experiences of Muslim women and highlights the discrimination and inequities that they face. It gives Muslim women a platform to voice their perceptions and experiences of educational leadership, and thus creates awareness of the challenges they face due to their multiple identities. The research also highlights the interplay and triple jeopardy of gender, race/ethnicity, and religion using the intersectionality framework, and seeks to provide a realistic understanding of the complex experiences of Muslim women in different societies. Collating the experiences of Muslim women in different geographical locations gave greater insight into how their contexts can shape experiences and perceptions due to the belief structures and cultural norms and behaviours prevalent in a particular society. Although these experiences cannot be generalised for all Muslim women across the world, the research may provide insight into some of the challenges and difficulties that are encountered simultaneously. Therefore, it seems paramount that these women are provided with a platform to voice their experiences and the challenges that they continue to face in educational leadership. The findings revealed the themes of Islamophobia, social isolation and exclusion, religious visibility, gender role stereotypes and sex segregation. Thus, this research will add to the plethora of literature of intersectionality in educational leadership and give voice to those who have remained silent.

    Project Context
    The six research participants were all working in different contexts from various locations. Therefore, face to face interviews were conducted via Facetime. Although I feared some elements would be lost, such as body language and other non-verbal cues, I realized that the use of Facetime allowed them to feel more relaxed as they could have the interview from the comfort of their own homes. This allowed them to share their experiences and thoughts more openly than if they were conducted in a public space. Being a Muslim woman working in education myself, I was able to contact several Muslim women whom I had previously worked with. I selected purposefully women whom I knew had experienced difficulties working in education, in hopes that they would share their experiences. Nine women were initially contacted.  However, due to their heavy workloads and busy schedules, three were unable to take part. This is something that I would consider in the future, as those working in education generally need more time and notice to complete such a task. I think it is also difficult to recruit people for research when there is no buy in for them, especially when time is constricted. Nevertheless, six women agreed to take part in the research.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Research Aims

    Whilst there is a myriad of literature regarding the challenges that women of colour face in educational leadership (Bush, Glover & Sood, 2006; Horseford & Tillman, 2009; Jean-Marie, Williams & Sherman, 2009; Steward, 2006), there is very little research related to Muslim women. Since September 11 attacks in 2001 in the U.S. (History.com editors, 2019), Muslims have been deemed guilty by association, being constantly scrutinized and being under attack (Jalazai, 2011), thus hindering the career progression of Muslim women. This study was conceived to learn Muslim women’s perceptions and experiences in educational leadership by providing them a platform to voice their difficulties, and thus creating awareness of the challenges they face due to their multiple identities. It highlights the interplay and triple jeopardy of gender, race/ethnicity, and religion using the intersectionality framework, and provides a realistic understanding of the complex experiences of Muslim women in different societies.

    The purpose of this research was to provide a platform for Muslim women to express their thoughts and experiences of educational leadership, creating awareness of the challenges they face due to their multiple identities.  The research explores the following two questions: (1) What challenges do Muslim women face in attaining educational leadership, relative to recruitment, opportunities and progression? and (2) How do their religious beliefs, cultural norms and values impact their career choices and experiences?  

    Research Design

    The way we choose to conduct research is shaped by our view of the world. The interpretivist acknowledges the myriad of perceptions of experiences that individuals hold, rather than simply seeking a phenomenon to be discovered by way of facts (Briggs, Coleman & Morrison, 2012). An interpretivist approach was applied to this research, fostering a qualitative research method focussed on meaning and words. According to Merriam (1998, p.6), “all types of qualitative research are based on the view that reality is constructed by individuals intersecting with their social worlds”. This type of research highlights what is unique to the participant, rather than universal (Burrell & Morgan, 1979, p.3), considering a range of diverse social factors, which have an impact on an individual in terms of their perceptions and experiences.

    This study adopted an interpretivist approach and a qualitative methodology. Qualitative research methods include interviews, focus groups and observations, which allow for “rich and deep description” (Briggs, et al., 2012, p.38). As I required in-depth responses which were personal and necessitated a level of trust, conducting face to face semi-structured interviews provided a comfortable setting, in which I was able to interactively talk with participants, allowing them to relax and share in depth experiences. This provided the freedom to “allow the questions to emerge and change” (Atieno, 2004, p.15).  Hitchcock and Hughes (1989) suggest that semi structured interviews allow in depth responses by way of the interviewer probing for further information (1989, p.83), and this flexibility allows for deeper exploration of particular issues. Face-to- face interviews also allow body language and other non-verbal cues to be picked up, which may “indicate discomfort” (Briggs, et.al. 2012), thus the interview can be steered in the direction to allow for more comfortability. Accordingly, semi-structured interviews consist of a few major questions along with sub questions and some possible follow up questions. Although the interview questions were consistent for each participant, probes differed as they were in accordance to the given response from the subject. Subsequently, a pilot interview was carried out, to ensure the questions were effective and in accordance to the research aims.

    Participants

    The participants of this study were 6 women from various locations in the UK, USA, and Saudi Arabia, with ages ranging from 32 to 66 (median age = 37). All participants identified as Muslim and the group was ethnically diverse, including African-American, Saudi Arabian, British-Indian, British-Pakistani, British-Jamaican, and British-Somalian. All participants have experienced teaching in either the USA, UK or/and Saudi Arabia, and all but one had experience in educational leadership. Their leadership positions included two academic manager, academic coordinator, school administrator, retired assistant principal, and English teacher, with 5 through 42 years (median = 12 years) in the field.

    Purposeful sampling was utilized in order to recruit participants who I thought would be information-rich individuals (Patton, 1990, p.169) and able to provide invaluable insight into their experiences, which would result in having in depth and rich case studies.

    Procedure

    In order to establish trust and maintain it throughout the research process, information regarding the research aims and how it would be used, was shared with participants, as well as their involvement in it. Full transparency was essential, as methods need to be employed openly and honestly, so that participants are fully aware of their role in the research (Burton & Bartlett, 2005).  Additionally, no pressure was placed on the participants to take part in the research, and they had the right to withdraw at any time, which was explicitly stated beforehand. Participants were promised confidentiality and anonymity by hiding all identifying markers or using pseudonyms and all had to sign a participant consent form beforehand.

    The six participants were sent the questions via email, prior to the interview, to allow them to prepare beforehand. The questions were as follows.

    • Please share the experiences you’ve had working in education with colleagues, students and parents, as a Muslim woman.
    • Have you ever felt discriminated against due to your gender, race/ethnicity or religion? If yes, please elaborate.
    • What obstacles (if any) have you encountered throughout your career?
    • Have you ever been treated differently due to identifying as a Muslim? If yes, how?
    • How has this affected your own behaviour?
    • What challenges (if any) do you think Muslim women face in education or educational leadership (These challenges could also be external factors)?
    • Do you feel that Muslim women who wear the hijab are viewed or treated differently to those who do not? Please elaborate and include any personal experiences
    • Do you feel that your religious or cultural beliefs and values have impacted your career in any way? If yes, how?

    All interviews were recorded on my smartphone and later transcribed word for word electronically. Recordings were carefully listened to numerous times to ensure complete accuracy of the transcription. Interview notes were categorized in order to identify common themes that arose from the interviews and to ensure that nothing was missed. Using thematic analysis, I was able to identify themes that arose. Each interview was treated as an individual case, considering participants’ experiences as unique and relative to them alone, without making generalization regarding a geographical location or for all Muslim women working in Educational Leadership.

    Findings and discussion

    Seven themes were elicited from semi-interviews with six participants: Islamophobia, the Hijab, Tactics, Gender Role Stereotypes in Islam, Lack of Support, Social Isolation and Exclusion, and Sex segregation.

    Islamophobia 

    Most participants commented on the increase of Islamophobia in the west, since 9/11.Tamara (all names listed are pseudonyms) explicated that the terrorist act of 9/11 was a turning point for Muslims, as there was a major change in the behavior and treatment towards Muslims in the workplace: 

    . . . 9/11 brought about a lot of fear and hatred towards Muslims and some of my colleagues at the time acted differently towards me at first. For example, I remember walking into the staff room, and they must have all been discussing the terrible events of 9/11. When I walked in, it was like they’d seen a ghost. They quickly stopped talking and some left the room. There was this awkward silence which made me feel so unwelcome. As the weeks went by things went back to somewhat normal, but I remember that time being really uncomfortable for me at work. (Tamara) 

    Four participants stated that they often downplayed their religious identity to have a better chance in job interviews. Sanam shared her experience of racial and religious discrimination, as she feels that she was at a disadvantage during her interview, simply due to the way she looked: 

    I was recently shortlisted and had a job interview for a managerial position. When I introduced myself to the receptionist, an older white lady, she automatically assumed I was there to interview for a teacher position. When I clarified I was there for a senior leadership role she looked extremely uncomfortable and surprised at what I was doing there. She stared at me for a while and then said “Oh. Ok. Take a seat and I’ll let them know you’re here”. I knew then I wasn’t the right fit for their leadership team, that I didn’t meet their criteria, perhaps because of race, my ethnicity or my religion, I didn’t look the way they wanted. I was interviewed by two older white women, and even though the interview went well, I was not surprised that I wasn’t offered the position. . . (Sanam)

    Islamophobia refers to a nonsensical distrust, rejection or fear of the Islamic religion, which has progressively ratified hostility and enmity towards Muslims (Abbass, 2011; Shah & Shah, 2012). The charge of media bias has dramatically increased, depicting false images of Muslims being ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’, using language to describe Muslims as violent and Islam as a hate driven religion. Terms such as ‘jihad’ which generally refers to the struggle of inner desires and the ego, have been used to indicate a war on the west and non-Muslims (Abbass, 2011, p.106). Muslims have been portrayed as ‘barbaric’ and ‘ignorant’ throughout times, and these misconceptions still remain and have more presently evolved to ‘intolerant’, ‘terrorists’, ‘mentally unstable’ and ‘violent’. Thus, Muslims are viewed as a threat to ‘social cohesion and integration’ and the “western way of life” (Shah & Shah, 2012). These negative stereotypes have heightened since the 9/11 attack, as the fear of terrorism has permeated throughout societies, which has further marginalized Muslims in many fields, including educational leadership (Shah & Shah, 2012).  As well as hindering developmental opportunities within organisations, the increase of islamophobia has dramatically impacted Muslims applying for jobs in education.

    The Hijab 

    One participant described an experience of overt discrimination, due to wearing the headscarf: 

    . . . as I ended the day, one of the administrators saw me in the hallway and looked me up and down and asked me who I was. So I told them who I was and that I had a two-week assignment, and these are her actual words: “you cannot come in here like this, we have a policy that nothing can be on your head” and I replied, “excuse me, I’m a Muslim and I cover my hair.” Then she replied “Well we have a policy, and no one can come in here with their hair covered”. And I said to her “well then you know what, you are up for a law-suit because this is discrimination and I’m allowed as a Muslim woman to cover my hair and go wherever I need to. . . (Taliah)

    All participants felt that wearing the headscarf affected the way they were perceived and treated, stating that it acted as a barrier due to this visible difference.  

    The headscarf has been under continuous scrutinization, leading to erroneous assumptions that Muslim women are oppressed, vulnerable and timid in nature. It has been used to justify the dividing barrier between Muslims and non-Muslims by claiming that they are unwilling to assimilate into society with others. These perceptions of Muslim women have only added to existing ideas that the media has portrayed of Muslims being mentally unstable and a threat to social cohesion, serving to constrain Muslims in their career development. Shah and Shah (2012) posit that unlike other groups of faith, the religious affiliation of Muslims is significantly different to others, due to highlighting their religious identity. 

    Tactics

    Two of the participants referred to using the tactics that Bendixsen (2013) discusses in her study, when Muslims do not simply accept the ‘othering’ behavior from non-Muslims and rather use tactics “to project an alternative self-image that challenged or negotiated the othering encounters” (p.125). One participant referred to using the joking tactic, which is “characterized by the use of irony, satire, jokes, and wit as a conscious or unconscious means to mediate and overcome prevailing discourses” (Bendixsen, 2013, p.128). A participant mentioned using such tactics: 

    At times I’ve noticed that I make an extra effort to smile and make conversation, especially to draw attention to my “westerness”. I often initiate small talk and crack jokes with people to show them that I’m human. Once, I received a lot of stares when walking into a post office with a box, and I said, “don’t worry, just books in here”, and laughed, and it did reduce the horrified stares as one or two of them relaxed a bit and smiled. What’s funny though, is I only feel that I have to do this when wearing the hijab, not that I don’t smile when I don’t wear it [laughs], but I do it a lot more when I’m wearing it. (Salma)

     Tactics refer to “acts that are determined by the absence of power” (Bendixon, 2013, p.125), whereby they manipulate and divert role spaces (De Certeau, 1984 cited in Bendixson, 2013, p.125). They allow individuals to reclaim their power and autonomy by challenging disempowering encounters. Whilst they do not essentially control these situations, they do shape them and serve as a coping mechanism by disempowered individuals. Hence, it is evident that these participants felt the need to prove that they were normal human beings and not terrorists, and by joking with these stereotypes they were able to take ownership of them and subvert them, which ridiculed the meaning, and thus enabled them to shape the encounter and reclaim their power.   

    Gender Role Stereotypes in Islam 

    All participants accentuated the priority of their role as a woman of taking care of the family and domestic duties, which hindered their career progression. One participant expressed: 

    . . .women may face challenges due to family obligations especially due to having to take care of the children and the home. This can prevent us from applying for leadership roles or going above and beyond, because our first priority is the family. If a woman doesn’t have support with the kids at home, it can be very difficult to take on a more demanding role. I always wanted to progress in my career and I used to be so ambitious, but after having kids I changed. I got tired [laughs]. My husband’s ok though, he’s been able to climb up the ladder and really enjoys his job. I’ve said to him many of times that he’ll never understand the struggles of a woman. Even though he is the primary maintainer of the family, I still have to go to work and then come home and work too, and it’s hard. I would love to have a successful career that I really enjoy, but once you get married and have children, your priorities have to change. (Salma) 

    Islam is the accountability system that Muslims hold themselves responsible to and defines the gender role expectations of its followers. The idea that women are responsible for the nurturing of the family, and men are the financial providers in Islam, has served to restrict Muslim women to the domestic role. However, Shah and Shah (2012) argue that there are many Islamic texts referring to a woman’s wealth and earnings, though these texts have been largely ignored to the benefit of men in society. Shah (2010) asserts that many Muslim female writers (Afshar, 1987; Al-Hibri, 1982; Badawi, 1994; Mernissi, 1991) have suggested that the proclivity of associating women with the domestic role is a “feudal patriarchal interpretation of religious texts” (Shah, 2010, p. 32). Al-Hibri (1982), as cited in Shah (2010), claims that verses from the Quran were misinterpreted to support patriarchal ideology after the Prophet Mohammed’s death. Hence, religious interpretations were heavily male dominated and served to subjugate women to the domestic role, whilst disregarding the many existing texts that were contradictory to this. Conversely, there are numerous female figureheads in Islamic history, dating back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him), who participated in the public spheres of society. These examples of Muslim women challenge stereotypes that have shaped the lives of Muslim women, contesting the idea that Muslim women are feeble, shy, weak and unsuitable for leadership positions. Badawi (1995) explains that the history of Islamic civilization contains much evidence of women participating in Muslim social spheres, indicative that these newly merged notions, which limit women to the domestic role, are due to cultural practices and not Islam. Women being confined to the domestic sphere, in other words, is much more of a phenomena of patriarchy than it is a teaching of the Quran.

    Lack of Support

    Due to cultural gender role expectations, many Muslim women do not receive the family support needed to pursue their careers further. Salma stated that this lack of support has prevented her from pursuing her career further: 

    If I had more help with the cooking and cleaning and children’s homework and so on, then yeh, I would have gone for those career opportunities. . . One of my friends has been able to focus on her career more and has worked her way up to a higher position, because she has a lot of family support. Her husband cooks and does the school run, which makes a really big difference. She also has her mother who lives close and helps her out too. . . (Salma) 

    The participant responses indicated that cultural and religious norms and values, which determine gender role expectations, have significantly impacted career progression for these Muslim women. The perception that their primary responsibility is towards the family has determined the level of support they have received from family members. Although Muslim women may work full time, they are still expected to tend to the family’s needs. The cultural gendered roles which remain largely prevalent in Muslim communities often lead to a ‘role conflict’ between their career and domestic duties (Davidson, 1997) due to the pressure of fulfilling familial obligations.  

    Social Isolation and Exclusion  

    Socialising with colleagues not only provides networking opportunities but also reduces isolation. However, due to religious beliefs, Muslim women may often self-exclude or be excluded from socialising with colleagues. Salma felt that there was a lack of understanding and respect of her religious beliefs when organising these social gatherings, which left her feeling alienated:  

    I have felt really disappointed at times, because my beliefs haven’t been considered when they arrange outings and no provisions have been made. Instead they have just stopped inviting me.  I’m not saying that they should make provisions for me and change their plans all of the time, but once in a while it would be nice to be considered and perhaps go for a nice meal or cinema instead of a bar or the pub. But instead they have just stopped inviting me out which just makes me feel a bit sad really. . .’ (Salma) 

    The cultural expectations of how a Muslim woman is expected to behave and socialise in public spheres meant that the participants often self-excluded from these social events, due to alcohol being present, which is religiously prohibited. This led them to feel quite isolated and alienated, as they were not able to form strong relationships with colleagues. 

    Sex Segregation 

    Participants stated how sex segregation in Saudi Arabia had created space for Muslim women in education, as segregated institutions required only female staff. In a Muslim society their faith was an advantage for which they felt respected and fairly treated. Single-sex institutions are “an important feature of Muslim culture” creating two almost separate education sectors, as “Islam discourages mixed-sex settings because of its potential threat to Islamic societal structure and provides a moral code for men and women operating in the public space” (Shah, 2010, p.36).  Accordingly, sex segregation can be appealing to Muslim women, as it maintains “Islamic societal structure and provides a moral code for men and women operating in the public space” (Shah, 2010, p. 36). One participant commented: 

    I think a lot of Muslims are attracted to working in Muslim countries, because of the segregation particularly in Saudi, which allows them to uncover at work, rather than having to wear the headscarf. . . . they don’t have to work with men, which many Muslim women aren’t comfortable with. The fact that education is segregated means that there are a lot more opportunities for women. . . (Salma)

    Although segregation has created space for women in leadership, upper administration remains male dominated. Therefore, Muslim women in leadership positions still feel powerless, due to the cultural “gendered ideological foundation of authority” (Shah, 2010, p. 36), as power still ultimately remains in the hands of men. Khalidah who is Head of the Girl’s section of a Muslim school in the UK emphasised how she has felt restricted: 

    . . .I’ve felt stuck as I’m not able to move up the ladder. The headmaster can only be a man and the finance department is run by men only too. So the real positions with power are men, not us. So if you want approval for anything, it has to go through a man. The women’s section always has to go through the men’s side for approval before we decide on anything. And as a woman you know it would never be acceptable for you to be in upper leadership having men under you, Islamically it just wouldn’t be acceptable. You’re seen as less competent or less able just because you’re a woman. . . (Khalidah)   

    Conclusion

    The characterisation of Islam, with its damaging misrepresentation of Muslims being the ‘other’, has served to marginalise Muslims in western societies, as they are perceived a threat to social cohesion. With Islamophobia on the rise since 9/11, Muslims have been heavily scrutinised and negative stereotypes have heightened, making it ever more difficult for Muslim women to progress into educational leadership. Gender role stereotypes of Muslim women have been derived from Islamic texts and misinterpreted to restrict and subjugate women to the domestic role. These cultural ideas have resulted in lack of family support for Muslim women, restricting their career choices. These misconceptions remain and impede the career advancement of Muslim women, as they conform to these cultural norms and expectations.  Religious beliefs make it extremely difficult for the Muslim woman to integrate into the workplace. They are professionally and socially excluded as well as self-exclude, due to identifying as Muslim. As a result, they are side-lined and overlooked for promotion and opportunities. Thus, it seems that although Muslim women encounter challenges like other ethnic minority women due to the intersections of gender and race/ethnicity, they face further discrimination and challenges due to their faith.

    To summarize the findings based on interviews, Muslim women working in education encounter barriers, due to the interplay of her gender, race/ethnicity and religion. Hence, their experience of educational leadership seems more complex than their female, ethnic minority counterparts, as Muslim women face a ‘triple jeopardy’.    

    This research presents some of the challenges that Muslim women face in educational leadership, on account of the complex interplay of race/ ethnicity, gender and religion. Although this research is relatively small in scale, I hope that participants’ complex, unique experiences and perceptions add to the existing literature of intersectionality in educational leadership and that it illustrates how religion as an intersection needs to be further explored in educational leadership. In today’s socio-political climate, it becomes paramount that the experiences of Muslim women in educational leadership are voiced, as they not only represent unique individual experiences, but they also are a part of the collective voice of Muslim women. Giving this group a voice may be aspirational for those seeking a more egalitarian society which realistically reflects the diverse multi-cultural world which we live in today. 

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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Dhesi, S. (2020). The triple Jeopardy for Muslim women in educational leadership Retrieved from https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/the-triple-jeopardy-for-muslim-women-in-educational-leadership/

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