The British Workplace is Accommodating Enough to Religion

Give Or Take Keys Showing Compromise***

This is a response to a piece in the Independent by Reyhana Patel on 21 December 2012, “The British workplace must become more accommodating to Muslim women”.

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The original wording is indented.

recent report published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community revealed that Muslim women are encountering discrimination at work from the application stage, through interviews, at recruitment agencies, and in the workplace itself. Some individuals were even compromising their religious beliefs by removing their hijabs and changing their names to English sounding names in order to obtain employment.

I oppose genuine discrimination in all its forms, which is why I wholeheartedly support the One Law For All campaign against Sharia “law” under which Muslim women (and those labeled as such) are barely given animal rights let alone human ones, and I don’t believe anyone should have to change their name to obtain employment. But having to play by the rules that everyone else plays by is not discrimination. You mean some Muslims are having to compromise? You say that like it’s a bad thing. You mean they’re having to dress in such a way that they have to comply with, for example, uniform or other workplace policies that apply to people of other religions and none?  And you call this discrimination?

One only has to look at the number of ambitious, educated and career-driven Muslim women across Britain, unable to secure employment, to realise that Muslim women are one of the most under-used resources in the UK labour market. [Note: I didn’t understand this link the author provided; it might be wrong.]

Poor things, if only they lived and worked in “Muslim countries” then maybe things would be better for them? Assuming, of course, they were actually treated like human beings and allowed to live and work there in humane conditions.  The uncomfortable truth, Ms Patel, is that Muslim women have far greater freedoms (especially religious freedom) in the “non-Muslim” world than in the “Muslim world”. And I’m incredibly proud of that.  What does that say about your beloved religion, and what does it say about the liberal secular democracy in the West of which I am so proud?

We need to question why this is happening. Should one really have to choose between religion and a career? Should employers be more accommodating to individuals wishing to practice their religion in the workplace?

No, one shouldn’t have to choose between religion and a career provided one doesn’t expect an employer to order its entire business around its employees’ (numerous) religions, and provided one doesn’t expect a workplace to magically transform into a place of worship (magic being the sole preserve of religions, after all).  You see, if the employer orders its business around your religion, it needs to do the same with other religions, and it’s impossible to keep people of different religions happy.  In fact, it’s impossible even to keep people of the same religion happy.  Remember that time when the Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadiyas and Salafis all played gaily in the sunshine together with their Korans and alcohol-free wine?  Me neither.  You want to practice your religion in the workplace?  Well there’s one problem there: it’s a workplace, not a mosque.

As a Muslim woman, I didn’t think I encountered any discrimination in landing a job; I faced the usual hurdles any other graduate would have faced. It was only once employed that I realised how difficult the workplace can be for an individual wanting to practice their religion.

No, you realised how difficult the workplace was for you because you wanted your workplace to change its rules just for you.  Many people manage to practice a religion, including Islam, around their employment, and they don’t expect special treatment. Learn from them.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day and finding the time and space to do this was my first challenge. In my first full-time job after graduating, I used my thirty-minute lunch break to head to a nearby mosque, while in another, I used a quiet spot in the local library. There were numerous occasions when prayer times were too close together for me to slip away, I couldn’t get time off to pray or I was in a meeting. The thought of telling clients ‘I need to go to pray’ was very daunting.

Muslims aren’t required to pray five times a day.  A Muslim is only required to do what an individual Muslim wants to do, which is something I dealt with here.  I know Muslims who don’t pray five times a day, just as I know Muslims who eat pork and who drink alcohol.  It’s all about you, isn’t it?  Maybe it was also quite daunting for your clients (without whom you wouldn’t have had a job in the first place) to muster up the courage to say, “Excuse me, but we’re paying clients.  We’re paying for a service, we’re not paying for you to attend the mosque; kindly do that in your own time.”  And if they didn’t say that it’s probably because they knew how excitable some religious people can become when they don’t get their way.

However the biggest obstacles were not practical, but social. There are certain topics of office conversation around sex, alcohol and relationships that Muslim women find themselves unable to participate in and as Islam requires modest dressing, in offices were females are expected to dress in a particular way, Muslim women are sometimes frowned upon for their choice of clothing, in particular, the hijab.

You’re doing it again: you’re trying to speak for all Muslims.  There are Muslim women who have sex outside of marriage and who drink alcohol.  I’m sure there were subjects your colleagues felt they were unable to discuss when you were around, such as Islam’s barbaric treatment of women, and the violent religious war espoused by the Koran which “might” provide the inspiration for Islamic terror.

An innocent invite for an after-work drink can cause a major quandary for a practising Muslim. These social gatherings in pubs provide opportunities for networking and are often where managers seek out potential candidates for promotions. In one role, I made my religious beliefs very clear on my CV and during my interview, however, my welcome to the team was an outing ‘for a drink.’ I can’t even recall the amount of times I turned down an invite to join colleagues at the pub for a drink. Even after clearly highlighting my religious stance on alcohol, my colleagues saw no issue with the occasional afternoon beers in the office and no one took notice of how uncomfortable this made me feel. This lack of respect for religious beliefs was what ultimately prompted me to leave the private sector and find work in an Islamic faith-based institution.

Pubs serve soft drinks, and I know of no pub in the land where people are force-fed pork scratchings.  Maybe your invitation for a drink was made on the basis you were being treated as an individual, capable of forming your own opinions on what you do and don’t drink.  The alternative is for you to be treated merely as a member of a group, with not only your rights but also your every characteristic determined by whoever happens to claim leadership and jurisdiction over that group (in the case of Muslims, this usually means a very shouty man who isn’t very “female-friendly”).  Learn this: no-one has the right to have their beliefs respected; only their right to hold those beliefs.

I’m not alone in this. Plenty of Muslims, both males and females, seek alternative employment because of similar problems. A colleague of mine left his career at a leading news agency because of the lack of engagement with Islam and Muslims, while one of my friends insisted on working from home to avoid these stresses. Another friend of mine refused to declare she was Muslim for fear of being stereotyped.

I think we both know what you mean by “lack of engagement”: you mean a refusal to grant special treatment to people who play the religious card.

While faith-based organisations and public sector institutions are more likely to be accommodating towards religious practices, many employers still see religion as a nuisance and are unwilling to seek compromise. It doesn’t help that some private sector institutions are now hiring based on ‘cultural fit’ rather than qualifications. When religion is such a taboo subject in some workplaces, it’s understandable why some Muslim women would choose to remain unemployed rather than speak up and ask for facilities, such as prayer rooms.

Religion often is a nuisance, but not because employers aren’t willing to seek compromise.  They often are, especially as the religion of peace (in fact, the accurate term is not “peace” but “submission”) often carries an unwritten threat.  Religion is a nuisance in the workplace primarily because the religious aren’t willing to seek compromise.  It’s unsurprising that religion can become a taboo subject when one considers what is taboo amongst certain religions (for example: free speech; cartoons of prophets whom we won’t name just in case people get crazy; women having the temerity to show their face in public, etc).  But to hell with all that, let’s just blame Muslim unemployment on employers’ refusal to turn their business premises into prayer rooms.

I’m not suggesting that employers must revamp their institutions for their Muslim employees. But as the latest census tells us that Muslims now make up 4.8 per cent of the population and with this figure expected to rise every year, we need to start opening up discussion. Employers need to learn more about the religious beliefs of their employees, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, and be more flexible towards faith-based holidays and think more creatively about inclusive social outings. Simple initiatives like these can go a long way in creating a more productive and happier workforce.

No, you are suggesting that employers revamp their institutions.  Employers need to get involved as little as possible in the religious beliefs of their employees, because they will establish what some of us already know: that each of these beliefs on their own are unintelligible and arbitrary enough, but when flung together into a bear pit where they fight for supremacy with competing beliefs they are all literally irreconcilable. Britain enables men and women to go to work as individuals and to be treated as individuals, not as members of a wild religious pack.  I imagine there are many women in this country for whom the workplace is a welcome refuge from the religious bullshit they are forced to endure at home and in the “community”, and where they can shed their cultural and religious baggage if they want to.  Placing an ever greater emphasis on religion in the workplace deprives those women of a vital secular space, possibly the only one they enjoy.

If my previous employers had been more accommodating towards my religious beliefs, I would have stuck around to see where my career in those organisations might lead. I have plenty of Muslim friends who are educated and talented but are holding back on seeking out opportunities in certain sectors for fear of compromising their religious beliefs. It shouldn’t have to be this way. If employers could be more engaging, I’m sure more people would be able to see the potential of the hundreds of educated, career-driven Muslim women out there.

I’m sure it’s your employer’s loss.  After all, you sound like a great team player.

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