Making room for Muslims
The news was playing in the background showing the usual montage of brown bodies, beards and foreign accents. The topic? I don’t remember. It could have been anything from immigration, refugees, integration, extremism, even the economy. Either way, the montage was always the same. “If they don’t like it here, why don’t they all just go home?” she complained. I froze for a second, head down, looking at my lunch, not knowing what to say or what to do. So many thoughts raced through my head. I wanted to say that I was them too. I wanted to say that “they all” were home. I wanted her to understand what was wrong with what she had said, to speak intelligently and calmly about the issues. But I stayed quiet. The moment passed. Silence followed. And then we all went back to work.
To date, I’ve worked for big organisations and small ones. Despite Muslim women having the lowest unemployment rate in the UK, most of the time, I’ve been lucky enough to not have to think about the fact that I’m Muslim or that I’m brown or even that I’m a woman. Most of the time, the differences that make me who I am are not obstacles – they’re recognised, accepted, celebrated even, but not Othered. Those are the times when I feel like I fit in, I am included and I belong.
Surprisingly for me, it was the small start-ups that struggled most with difference and diversity. In my experience, larger organisations deal with so many individuals that they are used to catering to the needs of a variety of people. Larger companies just want you to be the best at the job they’ve hired you to do, knowing that you will inevitably find those with similar interests along the way.
Smaller organisations do not have the luxury of human capital. If you have to spend 8 or 9 hours locked in a room with 6 other people, you want to ensure that you’re with people who you’ll get on with, people who share your sense of humour, in short, people who can be your friends. Unfortunately, my differences were so stark in smaller organisations, I was left feeling alienated. I was once told at an interview for a creative agency “all of our people have a common thread running through them that you can see”. All I could physically see of the agency was that I stood out, I immediately felt like I didn’t belong.If everyone thinks like you and shares your experiences, how will you progress and think creatively?Click To Tweet
I understand why small organisations go down this route – it’s for the culture. After all, work should be fun and getting on with your colleagues should be easy. But it also means that you are not challenged. If everyone thinks like you and shares your experiences, how will you progress and think creatively? Diversity is important.
So how can organisations cater better for diversity? I have a few suggestions.
Caveat: Not all Muslim women wear a hijab, not all Muslim men have a beard. Not all Muslims pray, or only eat food certified as halal. Some do, some don’t. In all of these instances, it is a very personal choice about how someone sees their faith and what is important to them when it comes to practicing their religion.
Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam and there are set times to pray: before dawn, at midday, in the mid-afternoon, at sunset and in the evening. This means that (depending on the time of year) 2 or 3 of the prayers fall within the traditional 9-5 working day.
When I asked my line manager at a small organisation where I could go to pray, she was visibly shocked and flustered. She was embarrassed but explained that nobody had ever asked before and that it hadn’t occurred to the organisation that anyone would ever need such a thing.
Whilst, in this case, my line manager was lovely and found a nook in which I could pray, her initial reaction left me feeling self-conscious, awkward, embarrassed at my difference.
Compare this to the two larger organisations that I worked for where I (and everyone else who joined) was shown the Reflection Space as part of orientation. It was just casually mentioned but it made a huge difference because it let me know that nobody was going to judge me for taking time out of my day to pray. Several people used the space, even those who weren’t religious – it was a place to go when you needed a few moments away from the ringing phone, the onslaught of emails and the stresses of an open plan office.
Be accommodating by simply asking yourself, “Where can people go when they need a quiet 5 minutes to themselves?” This does not have to be a dedicated prayer space. It can be the stationery cupboard, a spare meeting room, be creative! But most importantly, it should be open to all employees, not just those who adhere to a religion.
Many Muslims do not drink alcohol and this can create huge divisions when alcohol is such a big part of working life in Britain today. In the past, colleagues have asked if there’s something wrong with me because I choose not to drink, and there’s often an assumption that I’m not as fun or easy-going or relatable as others.
I would never advocate an organisation gets rid of Friday booze o’clock but there needs to be more inclusive activities that promote bonding and that are open to everyone including Muslims, pregnant women, or people who just don’t want to drink alcohol! There’s more to creating a work culture than putting cash behind a bar.
There are lots of activities out there from yoga to food to book clubs – again, get creative!
Halal food is food that is permissible for Muslims to eat and many Muslims will only eat meat if it is specifically certified as halal. This is usually not a big deal as I will often eat seafood or get the vegetarian option. But there have been times when the dietary requirements of the team have clearly not been thought through and the vegetarian options are just not up to scratch compared to the meat ones!
Just pause for thought – it’s as simple as asking your team what their dietary requirements are and ensuring that whatever you opt for is delicious for all.A few things that can make life easier for MuslimsClick To Tweet
Ramadan is the month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This means no eating or drinking (that’s right, not even water) but is also a time for Muslims to focus more on prayer and charitable acts. The idea is to control our desires in order to get closer to God.
Many Muslims go to work as usual during Ramadan but it’s tough. Fasting is physically exhausting (made even worse by caffeine withdrawal).
There are a few things that can make life easier for Muslims during Ramadan, such as working flexible hours, but this should really be an open discussion with the people who are directly impacted to see what is needed and what is possible.
At the very least, just be considerate and appreciate how a 19-hour fast can impact someone’s behaviour and working practices.
My last overarching point is to simply be as inclusive as possible, not just for Muslims, but for everybody in the workspace. Be as accommodating as you can be – make room for all your colleagues to be themselves comfortably in your organisation.
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