Muslim women feel more comfortable in Muslim-owned family businesses where they are less likely to be stereotyped as oppressed or lacking authority, according to new research out of a South African university.
The qualitative research found, for example, that Muslim women felt uncomfortable about the perception of the hijab outside the family business setting, believing non-Muslims saw it as a symbol of oppression.
Family businesses account for 80% of all enterprises in South Africa, according to the research conducted by an MBA candidate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Business School (NMMU).
Less than 2% of South Africa's 53-million strong population is Muslim, and the report says there has been almost no research into Muslim-owned family businesses in the country, much less the role of women within these companies.
According to interviews with female family members from Muslim-owned family businesses in the Port Elizabeth area, the report revealed Muslim women felt more comfortable working in their family business because of the "birds of a feather" effect, and they are in a domain where there is an acceptance of their beliefs and culture.
The report said potential barriers faced by Muslim women in a business environment included dress codes, particularly in industries, and a workplace culture that included widespread use of alcohol in work-related social activities.
Speaking on the hijab, one Muslim woman from a family business interviewed for the report said: “Not many of our suppliers understand fully why a Muslim woman has to wear a hijab and sometimes underestimate my authority and do not value my input in meetings”.
NMMU senior lecturer Dr Margaret Cullen, who supervised the research, says the research revealed Muslim women perceived themselves as more empowered than the stereotypes.
She added: "We have a lot of paradigms about oppression and, looking purely at the research, that's not what came from the Muslim women that were interviewed."
Regarding the hijab Cullen said: "If I want to wear jeans and a t-shirt that's my prerogative and if they want to wear their traditional dress that's how they want to be."
However, the research pointed out that women from all religions and ethnicities are still portrayed as a novelty in leadership roles: "Media representation of women [chief executives] of family firms still emphasise the sensational and unique aspect of their presence at the top."
Fifteen women were interviewed for the paper, written by Najmiea Salie, herself a Muslim, and came from a variety of roles with their companies, including financial management, administration and leadership roles.
Cullen and her MBA students plan to expand on the research, examining women in the family businesses of other ethnic minorities, such as Indians, as well as black family businesses in the Xhosa-speaking Transkei region.
They also plan to speak to Muslim women in family businesses in other non-Arabic cultures, such as Germany and possibly Italy.