Opinion

I Wear a Head Scarf - Will Anyone in Israel Employ Me?

A young Arab woman discovers the pitfalls of wearing a head covering when looking for work in a shopping mall.

Arab women wearing head scarfs.
Michal Fattal

Until recently, I thought simple, straightforward forces guided the Israeli labor market: the quality of the goods, their price, type and attitude of the seller. But then, as a job-seeking Arab woman who wears a head covering, I discovered there are also other considerations. I was looking for a regular job and got in touch with all kinds of firms looking to hire, and arranged appointments.

However, their attitude changed when they saw me with my head covering. That’s when they told me they had already found someone and the job was no longer available.

This phenomenon made me curious. I wanted to know if it was an individual case, or if this was a broader problem rooted in Israeli society. Of course, my test does not constitute research and is not a representative sample. But it is instructive about the general trend.

I was shocked to learn that fashion chains and stores in which sales clerks come into direct contact with customers, mainly clothing and shoe stores, do hire Arab sales assistants – but always those without a head covering. In contrast, places like pharmacies and grocery chains hire women with head coverings to be assistants and clerks.

I didn’t understand why it was happening so decided to find out more. I spoke to workers on site and passersby, both male and female. I learned that, on the surface, everyone in Israeli society agrees that there is no difference between a woman with a head covering and one without. Everyone also agreed that there is no problem with the particular dress code, since everyone has the right to choose what they wear.

But it was interesting to hear the answers upon digging a little deeper. For example, when posing the question, “What criteria do you use as an owner to choose a sales clerk for your business?” the answers were nearly identical. They can be summed up as: “The market demands a girl without a head covering,” or “The market demands a beautiful girl who will attract customers and increase sales.”

Another question – “Isn’t it advantageous to employ a girl with a head covering who will attract customers from the Arab community, which constitutes a sizeable part of the Israeli market?” – was met with much confusion and a shrugged “I don’t know.”

I am not an academic researcher. I’m just someone who needs a job and walks around with a head covering. But perhaps the time has come for a deeper investigation into some of the prejudices and stereotypes that affect even the possibility of selling clothes in a mall.

It would be fitting to check why a society that sees itself as pluralist – as Israeli society does – doesn’t accept women wearing a head covering. I hope that raising the issue can contribute to increasing awareness regarding the fragile and delicate nature of Israeli society.

The writer is a student at the School of Social Work at Tel Aviv University.