By: Toslima Khatun
Being the first to navigate a new working life in a field not explored by anyone you know in person is always difficult. You’re at sea, you’re alone and for most of us when you’re in your early 20s, you’re broke. When you’re female and brown skinned, there is a whole new aspect of the journey: you represent around a billion other people. So, that has been my modus operandi for the last 3 years. Navigating a way to be authentic and firm, polite and modest, and pushing against an everlasting tide to brush off the ‘guidance’ of male colleagues who see themselves as the saviour of one of the only women in a hijab pursuing a doctorate in history. So how do you make sure that you’re being treated the same when you aren’t treated the same?
By default, up until this year I was the only person of colour during my postgraduate, which meant that I stuck out like a sore thumb and felt it. While I met incredible people, I also met people who were emboldened by the fact that they were in the majority and I was a lone fish. In the midst of this, the wage gap in all of my work was not something that I was thinking about. I felt the colour of my skin and for the most part I was relieved and grateful whenever I had a job. And then I was emboldened, validified and the tide changed. The Harvey Weinstein scandals, ‘#metoo’ movement and wage gap stories all hit every social media and news outlet that is available to us. At the time, being a master’s student at a Russell Group university in central London, I was quickly learning that the constant ‘reassurance’ I was giving myself by constantly repeating that I was ‘overreacting’ and being ‘too sensitive’ was actually down-playing a wider system of exploitation. I was working for a university organisation that effectively worked as a job agency for the students during and out of term time so that if we were ever low in funds, we could find work. The only caveat was that during term time students could only work 20 hours per week so that it would not impact our studies negatively. While such a measure makes sense, it was not always the case.
This became glaringly clear when halfway through a full-time work assignment (as my classes had ended early for the year) I was duly told that I could not submit half of the hours that I had worked already. I was working within the university itself and then was told to ‘just submit 20 hours for now’ and having to explain if I carried on like that it would cut my pay down overall in 3 months by £900. I did not have £900 to spare. I was brushed off for almost a week until it was resolved after I threatened to go to the papers. The ban was lifted. HR did not help. Instead, after I was being paid, I received a rather glib email saying something along the lines of ‘I gather this has been sorted then?’. I could not afford to leave because I had student fees to pay and so carried on working and put it down to administrative ineptitude. All was well and I entered the second year of my masters to resume classes. It was only in the second summer when I once again started to work full time in order to save for my PhD that I hit the same road block that was stopping me from entering my hours online. Since I had technically finished classes I was not a student at all, so the procedure for me had changed and every time I called I received almost impossible suggestions such as signed copies of documents from lecturers who had quite rightly gone away after teaching because they had lives of their own. As I stressed about all of this during a shift at work, a male student bashfully told me that all he had to do was call and his working limit was raised from 20 hours to 120 hours per week. All while I was dealing with the ban of 20 hours on my account. I called and did not receive the same treatment. But my university fees were not going to pay for themselves. The week passed and a few other students had the same issues and all I saw were my male colleagues flying through the system whilst I and another female colleague could not get anyone to sign off our paperwork. I kept quiet for a few weeks because of the fact that I did not know any women in my private life who had faced similar situations in the academic world. But that was not helping anyone. So, I had decided I had, had enough.
I called the agency. I put it in writing. I kicked up a fuss. In the end the manager deigned to call me. I gleaned from his accent and name that he was also South Asian and Muslim and with a naive hope, I tried to appeal to him as an equal. I explained that I needed to be paid and that my male colleagues had had no issues. He denied it for 15 minutes until he realised that I would not relent. He then continued to tell me verbatim ‘this is not a gender issue’ and ‘you are making this worse for yourself’. In hindsight I recognise the gas-lighting although at the time I did even know what the word meant. I was eventually paid the right amount and as soon as I could I left without looking back. What strikes me about this is that I did not need saving from all of the stereotypes people think of when they see me as the small head scarfed, bespectacled student. But I did feel the weight of knowing that the way I behaved informed opinions on how people felt about Muslim women regardless of whether I knew them or not. I was the representative, without election, choice or proper reasoning. What women need is for men to step in; especially since they are the gatekeepers of most of the agency that we are still pursuing. Whilst racism, bigotry and Islamophobia are obviously and issue when you’re a 5-foot-tall brown, bespectacled Muslim women, more often than not what we are pursuing in the workplace is usually gender and wage equality and a working space just like everyone else. My humanness is not mutated under my headscarf. If anyone feels like being a saviour, it’s the wage gap and systematised misogyny that needs dismantling, for everyone.
Toslima is currently a PhD student studying Medieval History in London. She was Project Leader for the book/catalogue called Chronicling Formosa, and an article for Genoa Polytechnic University. She enjoys travelling, is an avid reader and voted against Brexit.