‘My hijab isn’t about religion any more – it’s about identity and I’m not taking it off’

'My hijab isn't about religion any more - it's about identity and I'm not taking it off'
Some classmates mocked her Swedish and prospective employers disliked her veil, but Najat Benyahia explains why she’s proud of graduating from university and has no intention of shedding her hijab.

When 28-year-old engineer Najat Benyahia from Morocco joined her husband in Sweden in 2010 she quickly learned the language and started looking for work. 

Before starting her studies she applied for a cleaning job at Halmstad University, where she would later complete her degree. On the phone the recruiter was keen as mustard, but that was before Benyahia showed up for her interview wearing a hijab. 

“The interviewer told me they didn’t actually need anyone and had already received enough applications.” 

Some employers just won’t recruit veiled women, Benyahia believes. 

“Just to be clear: a veiled woman with a degree will find it easier to get a job. However, it will still be tougher for her than for non-veiled women with the same qualifications.”

Benyahia worries that many Swedes view the hijab as synonymous with the subjugation of ignorant, unthinking women. 

“A veiled woman is just a normal woman with a headscarf,” she says.   

“My hijab is not about religion any more. It’s about identity and I won’t remove it to gain acceptance.”

Frustrating though they may be, she doesn’t take these prejudices personally, and nor does she believe they are peculiar to Sweden. 

But what did hurt her was her university classmates’ mockery of her accent. 

“Sometimes when I had to present my work at the university I ended up astonished and shocked by the students’ murmuring and laughter. 

“Many students decided not to include me in group activities, claiming that my accent would deteriorate their grades,” she says. 

But Benyahia, who speaks Arabic, French, English and Swedish, redoubled her efforts and emerged from the university with a degree in renewable energy engineering. 

“Despite my harshly mocked accent I graduated with much higher grades than many of my native Swedish speaking colleagues,” she says. 

“I just wonder what to would be like for any of my mockers, if they were to study Arabic for example, and hold presentations at Cairo University in Egypt in just two years?”

Armed with a qualification, her job hunt bore fruit: Benyahia now works as an electrical engineer with the Swedish Transport Administration in Gothenburg. 

“Public employers are way better than private ones in employing headscarfed women,” she says.

Note: Najat's story is also featured in MIG Talks, a a joint communications effort initiated by the Swedish Migration Agency. Read more here (in Swedish).