I rarely read magazines but Stylist is a free women’s fashion/lifestyle magazine I pick up at the train station on the way to work every Wednesday. Flicking through this week’s issue, one article stood out. It was about women in the workplace and there was a debate as to whether women advance in their careers depending on whether they possess something called ‘erotic capital’. This erotic capital is a combination of six qualities – beauty, social skills, physical fitness, dress sense, liveliness and sex appeal.
The obvious part of the argument – which I think most would agree with – is that, no, of course sex appeal doesn’t determine a woman’s success. To say that women should be taking advantage of their beauty and sex appeal goes against some of the most basic Islamic values of modesty and humility, and so that would mean Muslim women are condemned to a life the bottom of the career ladder unless they compromise their faith.
I know from my own experiences that that is not the case (I can write a whole separate blog on some of the incredible thing Muslim women I know personally have done). But the interesting part was when I thought about the other components of this so-called ‘erotic capital’ – i.e. dress sense, social skills, liveliness and physical fitness. I think these things CAN give a women advantage in the workplace, and I think these are not only compatible with Islam, but could also be considered to be encouraged.
Maybe it is an innate reaction to be somewhat judgemental, but I know I react differently when I have a meeting with somebody well-dressed and physically in shape – if the opposite is the case, it makes me think if they can’t look after themselves, how can they look after business? Islam teaches us to be presentable, and there are Hadith that instruct us to be dressed well, and personally I believe staying fit and healthy is a key duty of every Muslim.
That’s not to say you have to compromise your faith, but consider the context of the situation. You don’t have to ‘power dress’ in pencil skirts and fitted shirts. It may just mean swapping your indoors maxi for a structured abaya – or another example, a friend yesterday told me that instead of wearing black abayas all the time, at work she sometimes wears long skirts, in different colours. That’s because in the UK, and in many places around the world, black (all the time) might be seen as intimidating, and *may* gain more attention. Whereas the opposite would be the case if you were in Saudi Arabia, for example. To walk around there in anything but black would attract extra attention.
Aside from fashion and the way you look, there are things such as social skills and liveliness discussed. Again there is a difference in opinion, and some would choose not to interact with those of the opposite sex unless they have to, and then will only do so for that particular purpose. I asked a different friend this very question and her response was ‘I will talk to men if I have to, but I won’t socialise. If they ask me what I did on the weekend, I keep it simple.’ However, I think there’s a fine line between being modest, and closing people off.
However, it’s very hard to succeed in the workplace if you aren’t able to have a very superficial conversation about your interests/activities. That doesn’t mean you have to go to the pub after work and sit talking about your weekend plans. But if you’re able to be approachable and invite questions, that’s not only going to help you succeed, and act as a form of jihad, but also dawah too. I’ve had countless people at work – both men and women – ask me why I was fasting in Ramadan, what the purpose is… and these people then wished me a happy Eid. They wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t think I would be open to having a conversation with them.
So in that sense, I do believe the article brought up SOME interesting points that should be thought about by Muslim working women – but the same goes for men too. It’s a balancing act in having social skills and the right appearance, whether you are hijabi or not, and knowing the boundaries you shouldn’t cross.