Headscarf Hinders Reporter's On-Air Job Prospects

Sunday, September 25, 2011

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.

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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.

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You don't see men wearing yarmulkes announcing the news either, nor anyone showing any visible signs of their religion. The American public is narrow-minded in that way.

It would be much better if the public were more receptive to these things, but the reality is that it will be a long time coming, if it ever comes at all.

You point out that there is greater diversity amongst the people we see reporting the news (and weather), and I agree that that is a good thing.
That diversity is based on the natural diversity in our society; race, color, size, shape, etc.
These are all natural variations on how we, as humans, come. The fact that one no longer has to be blond and blue-eyed, between 5'8" and 5'10. size medium, etc etc is the way it should be.
You are addressing an issue of personal choice.
Please understand that I am not trying to be condescending, but I don't see many Amish-dressed women, Hasidic men, Goth styled people,
or anyone else who intentionally alters their look to distinguish themselves into a catagory.
Remember, in the industry you are seeking to attain a position in, it is not just about how well you do your job (and it sounds like you would do it very well), it is more about how many people will want to view you doing it.

To try to add some levity: If you went to a hospital for medical care, and a doctor came out dressed as a tribal witch doctor, you might choose to go the the other hospital down the street, regardless of where he or she got their degree.

Best of Luck.