Complexities of being a minority within a minority during a global pandemic

Are you working twice as hard to get half as far more than usual? For those growing up with this narrative, this notion has only intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re all concerned about job security or finding work but as a woman of colour, my pre-existing career-related anxieties have enhanced.

It got me thinking about privilege again, and although white privilege is a topic which still needs to be discussed, there’s another type of privilege which should be addressed, a type of privilege that exists in Muslim communities – Sunni privilege.

Sunni Muslims are often portrayed in the media as being the sole participant in Islam – it’s a religion where people pray in picturesque Mosques, women wear hijabs, and men and women pray separately.

As an Alevi Muslim, our representation is severely lacking, in both western and eastern media. When friends visit me at home, they’re often surprised, and wonder why I refer to my parents as Muslims when we have a whole cabinet of alcohol, pork in the fridge and my mum boasting about her new hairdo in the garden with a cigarette in hand. 

Alevi Muslims largely reside in Turkey, and although we also read the Quran, our adaptation is somewhat different. Some beliefs, such as no sex before marriage, no lying, no cheating, no gossiping and so on also make up some of our sins, but we are distinct in other ways. For example, men and women pray together in cemevis (worship places for the Alevi community), women are not required to wear the hijab, alcohol consumption is allowed (in limited amounts), and meat doesn’t have to be halal. 

These are just some primary examples, but perhaps enough to paint a picture of Alevis. Historically, Alevis have been brutally massacred for not being ‘real Muslims’. The Minority Rights group explains: “Isolated within what became Sunni Ottoman territory, Alevis have long been reviled. Many belonging to the majority have viewed Alevis as non-Muslims and questioned their loyalties, as well as targeted them with unfounded and scurrilous libels”.

In 2012, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that a “cemevi is not a place of worship, it is a centre for cultural activities.” He added: “Muslims should only have one place of worship,” openly dismissing the existence of Alevi Muslims.

When I used to visit my mother’s homeland in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, I was told to hide the Kilic I was wearing as a necklace (a sword shaped symbol which portrays Alevism and various other niche religions within Islam) as it could be dangerous and provoke locals. 

So it should come as no surprise that in Turkey, the workplace is full of bias favouritism. Alevis have to work twice as hard to get half as far, face ongoing micro-aggressions, and are enforced to adapt to Sunni practices. Albeit we’re not being enslaved and slaughtered anymore, we’re still a minority. There is still a stigma attached to us, and often, Alevis try to hide their identity in the workspace. 

The New York Times notes that: “Alevis have also reported discrimination in the workplace, particularly within state institutions. Few Alevis currently fill key roles in the state apparatus, such as governors or police chiefs. And although there is no concrete evidence of an official policy of bias, Alevis in low-level positions in the civil service regularly claim that the system is gamed against them, says Aziz Yagan, an academic who researches the subject.”

They spoke to Yunus Laco, an Alevi who applied for a state position, received some sectarian questions in his oral examinations.

“They asked me: ‘Are you an Alevi?’” Mr. Laco said. “‘Is there anyone in your family who prays five times a day?’”

Mr. Laco did not get the job. [reported by The New York Times]

The Minority Rights group says that: “Alevis remain politically marginalised in the country, with limited representation in official positions of power. Following the attempted coup in 2016 and subsequent actions by the government against its perceived opponents, numerous journalists were imprisoned and media outlets were closed, including most of those broadcasting and publishing on Alevi culture.”

Alevi Muslims are still being questioned and scrutinised in every way, whether it’s in the workplace, or in the prayer room. So as a woman of colour who faces challenges in climbing the career ladder here in the UK, it’s deeply unsettling to know that yet more complexities lie at ‘home’.

It is one thing to be a minority, but being a minority within a minority is much more challenging to navigate and, at a time like this, it makes me question: is there anywhere in the world where I don’t have to work twice as much, to get half as far?

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