After taking off her silver armband embossed with the word “Allah” in Arabic, Ayesha Begum puts red-and-white conch bangles on her wrists and vermillion powder on her forehead – the signs of a traditional Hindu woman in eastern India.
Begum, a Muslim, changes her appearance every morning before she leaves her home, 50km east of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state, where she works as a housekeeper in a private hospital.
“Through the day in the hospital I maintain this Hindu appearance. Everyone there knows me as Hindu and calls me ‘Lakshmi’ – a popular Hindu moniker,” Begum, in her early 30’s, told Al Jazeera.
“When I did not succeed in getting a job, I followed the advice of some friends and posed as a Hindu. Soon I landed this job in a hospital.”
Hospital officials asked her to get more female housekeepers from her village. “When I told them there were Muslim women who were looking for jobs, they said it would be better if I brought non-Muslim candidates,” she said.
Begum’s case is not unique. Many Muslims in India complain they face religious discrimination in the country’s Hindu-dominated job market. Muslims who have secured jobs pretending to be Hindus are fiercely secretive about their place of work.
Noorjahan Khatoon, 42, who lives in a suburban slum and works as a domestic cook in a Hindu household in a posh Kolkata neighbourhood says none, not even her close relatives know where exactly she is employed.
“My children do not know in which colony I work, let alone the identity of my employer. I don’t share any information about my workplace with anyone,” said Khatoon, who puts on conch bangles and vermillion powder on the partition of her hair to keep up a Hindu appearance.
“I am sure if my employers learn I am Muslim, I will be fired.”
Muslims posing as Hindus are mostly found in menial jobs in the unorganised sector where worker’s identity documents are not usually sought.
Some placement agencies across the country are helping Muslims find jobs in Hindu workplaces by introducing them as Hindus.
Nearly all clients in my agency are Hindu and most of them prefer not to employ Muslim.
– Sudhin Bose, former manager of a domestic help placement agency
Recently, when a domestic helper was found dead at the residence of a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member of parliament in New Delhi, police discovered the victim was a Muslim woman from West Bengal working there while wearing Hindu attire.
During interrogation, the manager of a New Delhi-based private placement agency told police he had introduced the woman as a Hindu – and he had done likewise with several other Muslim candidates to get them jobs in the national capital.
Sudhin Bose, who managed a domestic help placement agency in Kolkata until recently, agreed that a good number of Muslims work in the city pretending to be Hindus.
“Nearly all clients in my agency are Hindu and most of them prefer not to employ Muslims,” Bose told Al Jazeera.
“More than half the job-seekers our agency placed were Muslims from nearby villages and city slums. Often we introduced them as Hindus to our Hindu clients – and they got the jobs.”
“I am sure many placement agencies adopt such secret policies out of mutual interest to help Muslims find jobs in the city,” he said.
In 2005, the government appointed the Sachar Commission to investigate whether Muslims were disadvantaged in social, economic and educational terms.
The commission concluded the socio-economic condition of most Muslims was as bad as that of the Dalits, who are at the bottom rung of the Hindu-caste hierarchy, also referred to as the “untouchables.”
Ayesha Pervez, who works on minority issues and has authored reports on India’s working Muslims, said job-seeking Muslims face the hurdle of discrimination even outside unorganised sectors.
“The discrimination – which is nothing but religious identity-based exclusion – exists in organised government sectors too. In West Bengal, Muslims constitute 27 percent of the population. But their representation in state-government jobs is as low as four percent,” Pervez told Al Jazeera.
“Workplace discrimination forces Muslims to adopt fake Hindu identities. Because of this discrimination, most Muslims are unable to upgrade their standard of living.”
Widespread prejudice against Muslims also keeps them from living in urban India, Pervez added.
Although most agree that anti-Muslim prejudice has long existed in predominantly Hindu Indian society, the situation for Muslims has turned increasingly hostile in several states in the past couple of decades. This is a result of increased aggression of Hindu nationalist organisations, says social activist Ram Puniyani.
Sometimes I feel I have done something morally wrong by faking a Hindu identity, and have downgraded my own religion.
– Ayesha Begum, Muslim woman posing as a Hindu to get a job
Soon after 2002 communal violence in western Gujarat state – when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in riots – several Hindu organisations launched a propaganda campaign asking Hindus to boycott Muslims in all day-to-day dealings.
“Such a phenomenon leads to fear psychosis amongst the targeted community,” said Puniyani, who campaigns in support of communal harmony.
“This feeling of insecurity [among Muslims] is intensified by the increased economic challenges to make both ends meet – with livelihood issues on one hand and a social divisiveness, leading to ghettoisation on the other.
“Such ghettoisation of Muslims in cities like Mumbai and Ahmadabad clearly shows how the mutual trust among communities has vanished. And so the socio-economic enhancement of the minority community has stalled.”
Many Muslims say they feel awkward at having to masquerade as Hindus.
“Sometimes I feel I have done something morally wrong by faking a Hindu identity, and have downgraded my own religion,” Begum said.
“I shall be very happy if some day I get a good job where I shall be free from this guise.”