Headscarf Hinders Reporter’s On-Air Job Prospects
A lack of job opportunities makes Mariam Sobh wonder if her hijab, rather than skills, is to blame. An excerpt from her story, from the book “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.”
(WOMENSENEWS)–Can a Muslim woman who wears hijab actually be capable of reporting the news on television–in America? I always thought the answer was a strong and resounding YES! Because I was that Muslim woman wearing hijab, and I was going to do it. I was going to break the barrier and get out there and pursue my dream.
That was me in college. My mind was set. I was completely focused. I finished my master’s in broadcast journalism and worked in radio and for the university television station during both undergraduate and graduate school. On paper, I seemed bound for broadcast success. I had internships in radio and television in town. I was even the commencement speaker at our graduation ceremony. People raved about my work and patted me on the back. Nothing ever made me feel I could not make it in my field.
Yet once in a while, a nagging voice in the back of my mind would make me feel self-conscious about my hijab. One of my classmates had once asked me, “What will you do if you don’t get hired because of your headscarf?” I confidently responded, “Sue them!” Then a tiny seed of doubt would enter my head: What if I really don’t get a job because of my hijab?
I started to realize not all was going as planned when I began applying for jobs in television. I scoured dozens of openings across the United States. Every time I sent someone my resume and demo tape, there was no response. But I kept going. I heard how some graduates had sent out 30 or more tapes before getting their first job, so I knew I had to be persistent.
Bit of Hope
I continued to send tapes and resumes; 50 tapes later, I received a phone call from a news director in Negaunee, Mich.
“Do you have a job yet?” the news director asked me.
I was literally speechless. I told him that I’d love to come out for an interview. They couldn’t pay for my transportation but would put me up in a motel for the night, so I drove eight hours to get there despite the winter weather and a severe cold with laryngitis.
The news director used to work for CNN but had decided to settle down in a small town so he could write novels in his spare time. He looked over my demo tape with me and said he was impressed with my work.
“Frankly, I thought you were a lot older. You sound so mature.” Inside, I was jumping up and down. Could this be my big break?
The staff at the station was nice and friendly. I felt they saw me as a professional and not as a woman wearing hijab. I was told the job offered only $17,000 a year with no benefits, but that didn’t deter me. I needed a job, and I decided I needed this job. The news director put me through a screen test. I read the teleprompter as they taped me over someone else’s demo tape. I felt bad about that; but at the same time, I thought it meant they were really interested in me. I was given a tour of the town and taken to lunch. I could feel my dream getting closer and closer and closer.
Oddly, the news director never asked me about my skills or my professional experience. Instead, he wanted to know if I had a boyfriend, what holidays I celebrated and if I could really survive the cold weather.
Maybe this was my opportunity to prove just how American I was: “We celebrate all holidays, I don’t have a boyfriend and I’m from Colorado, so winter means nothing to me.”
“I’ll give you a call at the end of the week and let you know what we decide.”
The phone call came and I was devastated. “I think you’re too good for this place. You need to go to a bigger town. You wouldn’t like the winter here, anyway.”
My self-esteem took a huge hit. Was it my skills, or was it my scarf? I doubted whether anyone would ever tell me it was my scarf, but at the same time, no one was mentioning anything about my skills, either.
This was the beginning of what would be many similar experiences in which I would be asked personal questions that had nothing to do with the job being offered. I found myself pondering my situation. Since television has expanded in the past decade, we now see all kinds of people on the air: skinny, plump, homely, beautiful and ethnically diverse. There is still, however, a lack of representation for anyone who happens to wear their religious identity openly.
Certainly, I understand the argument that you can’t show your religious affiliation on television because people might start thinking you’re biased a certain way. My response to this argument is, isn’t it better to know someone’s background up front? Doesn’t reflecting one’s religious identity mean we’ll hold those journalists up to a higher standard because they must ensure their work doesn’t reflect any personal bias? Knowing my religious identity, don’t you think I would hold myself to a higher standard? Furthermore, why the assumption that wearing a headscarf means I want to report on religious issues? I’m perfectly content reporting on education, entertainment, health and environmental stories.
In my naivete, I had believed in “the American system,” only to start noticing through my own experiences that parts of it were reserved for those who fit into the mold. And I knew deep inside that if I took my scarf off, I’d be welcomed with open arms.
Mariam Sobh is the founder and editor in chief of Hijabtrendz.com, a fashion, beauty, and entertainment blog for Muslim women. Her journalism career includes working for a variety of media outlets as a news anchor, political reporter, traffic editor and reporter. She currently resides in Chicago.