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."

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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."

Devastating News

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.


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Mariam Sobh is the founder and editor in chief of, 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.

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I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim:

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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.