Lara Golesorkhi addresses discrimination against Muslim women in employment

The Muslim veil is not only a garment demonstrating religious faith, but also a highly politicized symbol, as seen by the proliferation of policies that regulate its visibility. In Germany, for example, the “veil has been perceived as a tool for gender segregation … and most notably a marker of cultural dissociation,” writes Lara Golesorkhi, a doctoral student in Politics at The New School for Social Research, in her recent piece published on the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s website.

This summer, Golesorkhi was one of ten winners in an international competition, co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative and the UnHate Foundation, part of the Benetton Group, for her proposal addressing Muslim women’s employment rights in Germany. Winners were chosen based on proposals that aimed to end various forms of intolerance, and each will receive 20,000 euros for the implementation of projects over the coming months.

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In addition to raising awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face in securing jobs in Germany’s employment sectors, Golesorkhi’s proposal is “to promote tolerance, equality, and respect, in the workplace, and to increase the number of Muslim women in the German labor market.” The project, linked here, has several components: a program to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; a launch of two initiatives, the iPledge Campaign and the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign; and a fellowship program to recruit leaders for the project.

The Initiative
Golesorkhi’s proposed initiative stems from her goal for Muslim women to become “the face of the solution we’re seeking.” The aim is to give Muslim women the opportunity to gain work experience, and to develop leadership and communications skills. The program’s “Job Ready” program will provide formal preparation for the German job market through a series of professional development workshops and trainings.

In Germany, applicants tend to attach a photo of themselves to their resumes, a practice that leads to discrimination against women who wear the veil, according to the research of economist Doris Weichselbaumer at the University of Linz. To combat this practice, the PhD student designed a campaign called iPledge, in which she will develop a database of businesses that have pledged to hire women regardless of the veil. Job applicants can access this database to see which employers will likely not discriminate, said Golesorkhi. While it is a symbolic pledge, Golesorkhi hopes that this will strengthen the relationships between employers and their future employees.

While Germans are aware of the discriminatory practices because of media coverage, Golesorkhi wants to take further action, by associating real people with the narratives of the discriminatory consequences of banning headscarves. The online component of the awareness campaign will use the #withorwithout hashtag to promote a photo series of individuals who want to end discriminatory practices against Muslim women choosing to veil.

Golesorkhi hopes that, through tabling and the use of social media platforms like Twitter, she can humanize the campaign to increase its support.

The Veil Debate
The debates about the veil and freedom of religion exposes, according to Golesorkhi, two human rights concerns: the right to exercise freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination in labor practices. Earlier this year, Germany’s constitutional court overturned a 2004 state-level ban on headscarves for school teachers, declaring the ban unconstitutional. As a result, in job sectors like education, individual schools are left to decide whether they will forbid or allow the wearing of a veil, said Golesorkhi. Schools will face the challenge of protecting individuals’ rights to religious freedom while addressing the concerns of those who feel threatened by the veil. Golesorkhi sees the dismantling of discriminatory legal policy  to be a step in the right direction toward religious freedom.

However, as Golesorkhi wrote, the key issue is the concept of religious neutrality. The school law of the Baden-Württemberg, a southwestern state in Germany, prohibits teachers from expressing their personal political and religious views in a way that may “conflict with the interest of parents, the constitutional freedom of religion of students, the impact of confronting students with the teacher’s manifestation of religion, as well as the danger of interference with the peace of the school.” Whether or not the veil portrays a specific indoctrination of religion, school boards are addressing these “abstract dangers” through the politicized concept ofcultural dissociation, which Golesorkhi describes as “a distinction between certain social groups based on their particular cultural characteristics and practices (like veiling), which endanger religious neutrality in settings such as public schools.”

While Germany’s Basic Law guarantees that citizens have the right to choose their occupation or profession freely without discrimination, the Baden-Wuerttemberg policies specific to education restrict that occupational freedom for female Muslims in public education. These bans expose racial and gender-based structural discrimination within the country’s employment sector, which Golesorkhi is trying to address with her research and humanitarian efforts.

Inspiration and Hopes for the Project
Inspiration for the project came from Golesorkhi’s thesis on the unemployment policies in Germany, which she completed as a Master’s student at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. “I’ve always been interested in this… and I’m very interested in the human rights framework through my volunteer work with Amnesty [International], which I started as an undergrad,” said Golesorkhi.

Golesorkhi has made these interests the focus of her doctoral dissertation in the Politics program at the New School for Social Research. While the veil debate is just one component of her research, Golesorkhi is examining what she calls the “state-Islam relations” in Germany and the United States. Within this framework, she studies clothing regulations in the public employment sector, and Muslim prayers in public schools.

Golesorkhi expects to get mixed responses as she seeks pledges from employers in various sectors, but hopes that she is opening up a space for possibility. She plans to start by targeting employers that have expressed support of some kind in the past, and corporations that donated aid to refugee crisis situations.

The main goal for Golesorkhi is to see more Muslim women in employment in Germany. “I wish Germany was already there, that a piece of fabric wouldn’t be an issue whatsoever,” but Golesorkhi feels the German public could be more decisive, and she wants to take a more aggressive approach to opening the discussion.

Recognized as Outstanding Teacher
In addition to the UN award, Golesorkhi is one of seven winners of the Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award, a new honor created by the New School for Social Research in the spring of 2015. The award was launched this year to recognize talented graduate student teachers who exemplify excellence in their teaching in departments across The New School.

Golesorkhi describes her approach as creating a friendly and comfortable classroom in which students can express themselves critically. When she received her first assignment to teach on global issues, geared toward art and design students at Parsons School of Design, she admits to having been a little nervous. However, she said, “every time I went back to the classroom, I became more confident, I became more comfortable.” Golesorkhi also recognized the challenge of staying focused on her dissertation while attending to the responsibilities of teaching.

Teaching at Parsons also expanded Golesorkhi’s research interests; she became interested in broader visual politics of the veil. Her research on the use of the veil in contemporary art and design led her to Muslima, the International Museum of Women’s online exhibit of stories of Muslim women across the globe. This content helped her introduce a discussion with her student about “how artists/designers are mediators of culture and hereby can contest or affirm certain stereotypes,” she explained.

This summer, Golesorkhi served as a research mentor in the Social Sciences Research, Theory & Practice fellowship program, a pilot project between NSSR and Eugene Lang College which provides exceptional undergraduates at Eugene-Lang College an opportunity to gain substantive social science research training as well as practical experience outside the academic setting, under the guidance of an NSSR graduate student. Golesorkhi also spent the summer as an exhibition researcher with the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History in New York, focusing on the lives of German-speaking emigres to the U.S. in the 1930s.

With or Without logo designed by artist Eliana Perez.
Article photo: Politics PhD student Lara Golesorkhi with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Additional Resources

1) Visit the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign website to learn more about Golesorkhi’s initiatives.

2) Watch the full United Nations briefing on recepients of the Diversity Contest below.