What it’s like to work in a Western office as a Muslim
Reconciling what my faith expects of me with what my boss expects of me isn't easy. But it's worth it if it means I don't have to leave my faith at the door at 9am
Religion is a touchy subject. And workplaces have a way to go before they get the balance right between creating an environment that allows for personal expression, while still keeping things professional.
But as a Muslim, I don’t leave my faith at the door when I walk into work at 9am. My religion is part of the way I spend my time, express myself, and make decisions – so I need to find a way to reconcile the expectations of my faith with the expectations of my colleagues, clients, and bosses.
Time to pray
As a Muslim, one of the main concerns for me when navigating the workplace is the issue of finding prayer rooms.
A fundamental part of being Muslim is being able to take time out of your day to observe prayer and connect with God. Depending on the open-mindedness of the workplace, it can be difficult to explain to my colleagues why I may need to spend 5 minutes of my day every 2-3 hours to observe prayer. Most workplaces in London, where I live, don’t even seem to have a room Muslim workers can use.
“People will think I’m wasting time by praying 5 times a day,” said a Muslim friend I spoke to about the issue, who’s working as a teacher for young children. “I feel like because I’m taking time to pray, I have to compensate by working harder.”
“We often have meetings, deadlines, queries or questions that need to be done ASAP so there is always a day in a week when I am late for my prayer,” another friend, working as an accountant, told me. It’s like forcing us to choose between being committed to our work, and keeping in line with what our faith expects of us.
Another issue I’ve faced is the question of showing my religion through the clothes I wear, and the effect this has on my standing with my colleagues, clients, and partners. As a Muslim, I’ve chosen to always wear the hijab in public places.
For a whole host of reasons – the increasing amount of attention being paid to issues of terrorism in Europe likely being one of them – wearing the hijab is a risk to my ability to be taken seriously, regardless of my skills at the job.
But much as I’ll be subject to certain stereotypes in a Western workplace which make doing my job well just that little bit more difficult than it needs to be, I’m also lucky to be given the chance of addressing non-Muslims misconceptions about my religion.
Unlike many places around the world, I live in a place where expressing your religion at work cannot legally be held against you. Christian friends of mine have spoken to me about their gratitude for the same privilege in regards to their faith. "I have the freedom to express my views and teach others,” they said. “I can bring a different perspective on things, and have an opportunity to share what I believe.”
This freedom to share different ideas and belief systems is one that, I think, improves the quality of the work that we do. Open discussions with each other create an environment of acceptance, and ultimately, effective collaboration. That’s not to say discrimination towards certain religions doesn’t still exist — but I feel we’re a step closer here to creating religiously tolerant workplace environments than a lot of other places around the globe.
...and living with the ones that aren't going away
Still, those stereotypes haven’t gone anywhere just yet – I should know. As a Muslim, I feel a genuine need to prove that I am not a ‘terrorist’ or ‘misogynist’ whose beliefs are stuck in the Middle Ages.
As a woman, I feel under pressure to convey that my religion does not oppress me in any way, and that feminism is not incompatible with my beliefs.
A Muslim friend of mine highlighted that she hopes to show that as a British Muslim, she “can portray Muslims in a positive light as opposed to what the media shows – we, as Muslim women, do have our rights.”
More tolerance = better workers
Navigating the balance between following my faith and excelling at my work is a real challenge, especially if the environment I’m in doesn’t take the issue seriously, or address it head on. I strongly believe that tolerant, accepting environments create better workers, and better work – not to mention a better society.
It’s not just about what you do, it’s where you do it. Workplaces can create and cut jobs, borrow money and interact with the financial market, and buy and sell products from other workplaces, affecting their financial situations. There’s also the question of whether our workplaces should be taking care of us, or whether that’s the government’s job…