“Zeynab, there’s Halal food in the kitchen!”
My boss called out to me excitedly with this announcement.
I’d already had a laksa for lunch, but the offer was still somewhat tempting. After all, it made a change from the wine bottles usually stashed away in there. But I decided against it, retreating instead to pray in the sealed-off corridor I’d jokingly dubbed ‘the Room of Requirement’. (Harry Potter fans know what I mean.)
Welcome to the life of being a Muslim in the workplace. It’d be hard for anyone to fly under the radar in an office environment, given the complete and utter lack of privacy, but it’s even harder to do so when you’re Muslim. The following are just a few examples of the hilarious, awkward and painfully annoying things Muslim professionals encounter on a regular basis:
1. The lunches where you can only eat one thing on the menu
At my old workplace, we used to go to this grubby old hotel every time someone was going on maternity leave/resigned/did anything at all. The menu could best be described as basic, and as such, had one meat-free dish on the entire menu.
I didn’t enjoy the tomato salad (i.e. a pile of tomatoes and some wilted green leaves) the first time I tried it, but by the sixth time, I was just about ready to smuggle in a kebab and covertly chew at it under the table
2. Finding somewhere to pray
I’m lucky now to have the Room of Requirement at my disposal, but it wasn’t always the case. In previous jobs, I’ve been forced to pray in all sorts of places, from the fire stairs to the photocopying room to other people’s vacant offices. While I had my own office for the better part of last year, two out of its four walls were made of clear glass. I tried to manoeuvre my bookshelf and door so that it would block sujud from general sight if nothing else, but everyone managed to work out what I was doing pretty quickly.
In fact, they had gotten so used to the sight of my closed door at certain times of the day that when an unsuspecting person tried to open it, a colleague shooed him away, whispering, ‘Go away, she’s praying!’ Bless her.
3. Surviving the Ramadan sympathy barrage
While Ramadan is my undoubtedly my favourite time of year, I can’t help but dread its arrival for one reason and one reason only: the entirely misplaced truckload of sympathy I receive from all my colleagues. There’s a reason the #notevenwater hashtag went viral, and that’s simply because anyone who’s been amongst non-Muslims during Ramadan knows that they tend to chuck us a great big pity party when we’re fasting.
This Ramadan, my colleagues apologised constantly for eating in front of me. They’d tell me not to look if anyone brought food into the office. They’d apologise for even talking about food in my presence. My repeated reassurances that I really wasn’t all that hungry fell on deaf ears. (On a positive note, their sympathy made it easier to get out of work early, for which I will be forever grateful.)
4. Listening to people talk about their ‘big’ weekend
Inevitably, Monday morning is a time to exchange war stories.
‘Man, I had a big one last night!’
‘What a messy weekend that was.’
I tend to nod and smile in solidarity, but truth be told, the messiest thing I got up to on the weekend was unpacking and repacking my shoe rack.
5. Avoiding handshakes
We all have our tricks to try and weasel our way out of shaking someone of the opposite sex’s hand. Some swear by holding a big pile of papers whenever a new person is in the vicinity.
Some do the awkward I-know-you’re-only-a-metre-away-from-me-but-I’m-waving-at-you thing, and some try to grab a pair of gloves and hope no one asks why they’re wearing them indoors.
6. Getting caught with your foot in the sink
It’s happened to the best of us. Don’t even try to explain…
Just smile and make conversation about the weather as if your foot isn’t hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the basin.
7. Fielding ambush questions on Muslims and Islam
Whenever some news item breaks about Muslims/Islam, I prepare myself for a barrage of tiresome and unoriginal questions. I can handle it, as much as I don’t feel I should have to. But there’s always that one colleague who regularly ambushes you with random, unannounced questions.
You could be waiting for your morning toast to pop in the kitchen and suddenly, there they are, wanting to know the ins and outs of the Muslim dating scene.
8. Getting complimented on your ‘colourful’ hijabs
My colleagues have always been great for my self-esteem. I could be having the worst hijab day in the world, my under-piece lopsided, my pins poking out at awkward angles, but they just don’t seem to notice.
If I were around my Muslim girlfriends, they’d tell me to sort myself out ASAP, but instead, I get constant compliments on my ‘colourful’ hijabs and asked where I possibly could have sourced them from. (They always seem slightly crestfallen when I say it’s just from Target.)
9. ‘Networking’ functions
These are always less about networking and more about loading up on free booze. Fortunately, most people are far too engrossed in the free booze to notice much else,
leaving you free to make an inconspicuous exit.
10. Explaining that yes, you really have never drank alcohol
‘But really, not even once?’
About the Author:
Zeynab is a lawyer and social inquirer who writes at Love Haqtually on all things Muslim love and relationships.