It is well-known that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has permitted women to make choices in regards to balancing responsibilities within and outside of the home. This includes the choice of employment. However ‘easy’ this choice may appear, working outside of the home in a non-Muslim country such as the UK poses a number of challenges for Muslim woman. These challenges, which are often in direct conflict with Islamic principles, render some Muslimaat (female Muslims) to engage in social norms that contradict the Muslim’s way of life. A test in their faith alongside the day-to-day struggle to please Allah, today’s working environment makes it tough to balance Islamic doctrine with the British work ethos.
This article will examine some of the trials Muslim women face in the British workplace with particular regard to the Hijab, working relationships and the obligation of performing the Prayer.
The Qur’an and Sunnah commands the believing women to dress modestly and maintain correct Hijab. “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: and they should not display beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they must draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, or their women, or their slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who are not aware of the private aspects of women.” [Qur’an 24:31]
Whilst this ayah (Quranic verse) may be easier read than done, Muslim women who work have differing ways of managing the Hijab. Some women shy away from wearing it out of fear that it will invoke some form of opposition from their co-workers, while others wear the Hijab whenever they leave their homes in an effort to achieve faith and piety. Then, there are some who simply want to maintain their Islamic identity and declare that a judgment of her ‘looks’ is to play no role in society.
In an “Islam Online” exclusive, Misbah G. Shares, “When I wore my Hijab for the first time at work, they thought it was a religious day, all of a sudden I went from fun, bubbly and interesting to plain old boring! Yes, people asked questions such as why? And was it pressure from parents/family? My reply was that I wear the Hijab for the Sake of God, my love for Him and for the bigger reward in the Hereafter. It’s my identity and it’s who I am; A Muslimah.”
Those who adorn the Hijab at work are quite obviously more visible. With ignorance about the Hijab still a major concern, Muslim women like Misbah are perceived as oppressed, passive and unintelligent. Vulnerable to taunting and discrimination, Misbah goes on further to say, “My bad experiences included, being called “batman” and “ninja” along with an attempt to pull it off!”
Women in the West are particularly judged heavily by their physical appearance and the UK is no different. Sporting the Hijab at work, Muslimaat can witness strange looks, stares and even covert glances. When uninformed employees club together, the Muslim woman can experience humiliating remarks and racist comments. Despite these ill-feelings and abuse, a righteous Muslim woman will find strength in her faith, thus comprehending that modesty is a matter of religion and a command which must be fulfilled.
Obligations and requirements of the Prayer
Fulfilling the obligation of prayer is not a problem for many Muslims who work. In the UK, companies often designate an area for employees of faith a “quiet room” in which they can perform their devotional acts. In cases where companies do not accommodate these, the Muslim woman usually finds an area to connect with her Lord during specified times.
“The third floor of my building was vacant so I took advantage of the (vast) space to perform my prayer during my lunch break. It was quiet and peaceful and I was able to fulfill the 2nd pillar of Islam with concentration,” says Habiba Hussain in an “Islam Online” exclusive. She continues, “I’ve even offered my prayers in the store room amidst stacked chairs, office desks and computer cabling!”
Whilst many successfully integrate prayer into their workday, often with facilities from their employers, others face issues around the subject of prayer, including finding the time to pray. This matter causes many Muslim women to just shy away from their prayers to avoid “rocking the boat”. Some fear they might lose their jobs if they don’t ‘go with the flow’ or even go to a crude extent of showing others we are not ‘extremists’.
Then there are those who just don’t pray due to a weakness of Eman (faith) and “embarrassment.” Due to the nature of the job (which requires continual presence such as factory work) the Muslimah may face a conflict between herself and her employer. This poses a threat to jeopardizing working relations at the potential risk of being fired. When practicing Islam at work, it is conducive to have understanding co-workers. However, in reality, this is not the case as practicing Muslimaat (plural of Muslimah) continue to be a target of bigotry taunts and racial slurs in the British workplace.
The British working environment is a mixed environment, and so it is no wonder that business events, meetings, conference calls and the like are mixed too. On one hand mingling with their non-Muslim counterparts, the Muslimah is open to and at times thrust into compromising several aspects of her Deen (faith). On the other hand, becoming a recluse and sticking to herself can invite (more) unwanted attention, gaining a reputation of the “outsider” or “loner”. If she chooses to mingle with her non-Muslim colleagues, she exposes herself to vices such as consuming alcohol and smoking; both of which are forbidden in Islam. She will also be exposed to free mixing, which usually leads to a stirring of the emotions, befriending, dating and so on and so forth. Inappropriate conversations are not excluded either when interacting in a mixed environment. In order to preserve Eman, the sincere Muslimah will try to avoid and keep away from these situations by using Da’wah (religious advocacy).
In most Western offices, ‘shaking hands’ is a customary business etiquette, especially when greeting visitors. For the Muslimah this poses yet another problem. An awkward predicament, some Muslimaat feel too weak to refuse when the opposite gender extends his hand. For fear of criticism and ridicule they fall victim to this particular working culture.
Those who are strong in their faith have used this practical situation as an opportunity for Da’wah. “It is not uncommon for a Muslimah to take advantage of the ‘refusing to shake hands’ concern by explaining they are not allowed physical contact with the opposite gender. The male might find it strange at first, but with a sound explanation they usually understand.” says Jasmine H.
Help is at hand
Even in 21st century Britain where equal opportunities are given high value, many Muslims are still facing challenges in their work environments. Breaking out from the typical stereotype, many British Muslim women today are high-achievers, both academically and professionally, in a diverse range of dignified fields. Recently, there have been a growing number of organizations which have been established specifically to help the Muslims in general in the British workplace. Organizations such as the MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) and Working Muslim provide the support, guidance, and tools to help working Muslims balance their lives between work and faith.