Working through Islamophobia in corporate Cape Town

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JESS MOUNEIMNE says she’s had to hide her Muslim identity to prospective clients in an attempt to win business - and her experience hasn’t garnered the same outrage, or cash rewards as a waitress who was refused a tip by student activists. 

I was sweating from excitement as I zipped into the parking bay just outside my new client pitch. I was pitching at this prospective client’s premises which always throws me off. I spend good money on a pretty office where I prefer to seduce my new clients from, but here I was in a middle class suburb in Cape Town ready to pitch to a large, fast food franchise.

After being offered a cup of cheap filter coffee I handed the owner, who sucked on a Camel (in a public, indoor space) the entire time, my business card. “That’s a strange surname, where are you from?” he asked.

I have been asked this a lot since taking my husband’s surname, but have found this far more tolerable than explaining why I had this good Jewish surname with a good Muslim scarf on my head. I was raised Jewish and converted to Islam in 2009. During my first four years of being a Muslim I chose to wear the hijab– and I am sure you can imagine the difficulty people had digesting “Jess Cohen, the hijabi Muslim woman”.  A couple of years ago I chose to remove the headscarf and have since found less pressure to speak for all Muslims on matters of a mostly screwed up word.

Having said that, when I explain the daily asked questioned of, “Where is your surname from?” The next question is usually “Are you Muslim?”

Now let’s just pause here for a second to ponder on how often you ask a complete stranger their religion. When last did you meet a Jane Smith in a shop and ask her whether she was Christian?

On this particular day, the said potential client, Star of David hanging around his neck, asked me where my surname was from, I said it was Lebanese and that my husband was from there. He took a look at me and said, “Yeah but he is a Christian right so we can do business together still? It’s those ‘Mozzies’ that are the problem!”

This may seem like a simple question to which my answer would either be, “Yes I am Christian”, or “No I am Muslim.”  But the truth is there is no simple answer. On one hand I am a fierce defendant of my beliefs and on the other hand I will admit to having the privilege (yes us white people and all our privilege)  of being able to hide my religion behind my snowy white skin and an English name. While I am sure I don’t need to explain to you why being able to hide my “Muslimness” is a blessing, I will say this: I have on a number of occasions not landed work or been treated very differently after disclosing my religious status- and to those who cannot help but announce their Muslimness before even being introduced to someone, are assured that all the stereotypical assumptions are already right there in room as they enter.

On this particular day, desperate to impress and land this gig, I must have taken too long to make my mind up on how I was going to answer this question and potential client continued.

“It’s those damn ‘mozzies’ that are the problem! I can say this because some of my best friends are Mozzies,  they are lovely people but are dodgy business people.” He then rambled on for about 10 minutes about how he has done business with Muslims countless times and how every time they screwed him over. He also told me how the Christian Lebs may be Arabs but they were okay because they helped the Israelis kill the Muslim terrorists.

I had countless opportunities to stick up for myself and for my religion, to correct this man for his narrow minded and racist viewpoint but I stayed silent. I stayed silent and through my silence lead him to believe that I was Christian- in the hopes that I would land the big contract that the business so urgently needed. The last time I dealt with a similar situation I chose to speak up and it cost me a contract. I needed this contract and so I listened for another 20 minutes about how bad Muslims were.

After that meeting, I got into my car and cried my eyes out, not because I was hurt by this bigotry against me, but rather that people could walk around with so much hatred in their hearts and were ignorant enough to openly spew it all over the place.
I was the coward for not saying something right then and there and was suddenly stressing about how I would hide my Muslimness from him during our six-month contract. How were our next 20 meetings going to go if this was just day one? And so I emailed him later thanking him for his time and explaining that I was so taken aback by his comments in our first meeting that I incorrectly disclosed my religion. I was in fact a Muslim and I understood if that meant that he would rather not do business with me – I never got a reply.

I posted the incident to social media, it got very little reaction. Nobody shared it and nobody raised any money for me.

jess profile
Jess Mouneimne is an entrepreneur, writer, radio personality and media strategist. After hanging up her news reporter shoes in 2012, Jess launched Jam Media, a 360-degree communication agency based in Cape Town that has a special focus on the SME space.”

 

 

 

A version of this piece has also been published on Jess’ personal blog.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons - 

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