Although diversity, equity, and inclusion has become a priority for companies over the last several years, faith affiliation is often left out of the wider conversation. Muslims, in particular, face a plethora of challenges at work given their unique faith-related needs that make it difficult to adapt to the values and orientation of the dominant work culture.
Religion is often an uncomfortable topic to broach, but faith is an integral part of identity — avoiding or denying it prevents people from bringing their authentic selves to work. Many Muslims struggle to belong, often hiding facets of their identity related to their appearance, affiliation, association, and advocacy. Muslim women are more likely to be economically disadvantaged than other social groups in the UK, are three times as likely to be unemployed and looking for a job as non-Muslim women in the west, and often experience greater career impediments.
In my career, I often encounter people who find it surprising to see me own my space and often refer to my faith when talking about my achievements, as if my merits are an exception to my religious identity. It’s time for companies to include faith in their DEI efforts. Here are five strategies for leaders to support Muslim women at work.
Avoid faith stereotyping.
The media plays a massive role in shaping societal expectations and promoting images of Muslim women that perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, and limiting perceptions. These naïve and clichéd narratives are frustrating for professional Muslim women who continuously feel the need to defend their faith.
There are also a lot of assumptions about what constitutes a Muslim. Many people believe that women who wear a hijab or carry themselves in a certain way are “conservative” Muslims and those who don’t are “liberal” or “moderate,” even though the latter could be practicing Muslims in all aspects of their lives. Many people also assume that the hijab is a symbol of oppression or a forced choice, but in most cases, it’s a personal preference.
Muslims do not form a single homogenous group. They come from various ethnicities, backgrounds, and countries, so they may not fit the mold society defines for them. Many Muslim women may also experience intersecting forms of inextricable discrimination due to gender, faith, race, ability, socioeconomic background, or other characteristics.
These differences extend to cultural practices. Some Muslim women may be uncomfortable shaking hands, making prolonged eye contact, or mingling with men, especially in one-on-one meetings. Others are not. These are all personal decisions and preferences.
Instead of assuming that all Muslim women are the same, ask how your colleague prefers to be greeted, or wait to see whether she extends her hand or offers a hug. Depending on her preferences, you can provide options that make her feel more comfortable in one-on-one meetings, such as leaving a door open or holding the meeting in an open space.
Design inclusive networking opportunities and company events.
Career opportunities often arise from interactions outside the office, as you meet new professionals and expand your relationships. Many Muslim women miss out on these social interactions, which often involve meeting for happy hour drinks or dinner and don’t account for dietary needs, such as abstaining from alcohol, avoiding pork, fasting, and eating halal food. This can amplify feelings of exclusion and leave people feeling anxious about their “unusual” choices and avoid outings altogether.
Considering dietary needs is respectful of faith. For networking and social events, choose venues that serve non-alcoholic options, along with an assortment of foods that cater to all types of nutritional requirements, including vegetarian, vegan/halal/kosher, and gluten-free. Most importantly, ensure that all food and drinks are correctly labelled and, where possible, ingredients and allergens listed. Inviting partners or other family members can also make Muslim women more comfortable attending after-work events and foster a culture of inclusivity.
Promote cultural awareness.
Muslim women are often portrayed as acquiescent, oppressed, threatening, or lacking agency. These stereotypes are damaging, and much of the anti-Muslim bias stems from misinformation about and misunderstanding of the religion. Therefore, promoting religious literacy and educating employees so they know what to expect can go a long way toward building inclusive culture.
To help alleviate misconceptions and normalize conventional religious or cultural practices, bring in guest speakers or senior role models of the same faith to inform employees about Islam. Holding constructive dialogue and open forums allows employees to ask candid questions and learn more about different faiths. These efforts help them get to know people on a personal level as relatable colleagues with common interests.
Consider supporting the Ramadan Challenge or Fast2Feed campaign, which encourage non-Muslims to fast alongside Muslim colleagues or donate meals to people in need. These inclusive programs foster positive representation and help Muslim colleagues feel included and valued. They can also build solidarity, camaraderie, and compassion by focusing on positive aspects of the faith such as charity, humility, tolerance, and kindness.
Create an inclusive schedule for employees with faith-related needs.
Many non-Muslim leaders don’t understand or acknowledge that prayer is an integral part of a Muslim’s everyday routine. Many Muslims find it difficult to take prayer breaks considering that a few of those breaks may fall during work hours. Even if your company has few Muslim women employees, create an open discussion about a full range of flexible options to support their scheduling needs. Allocating a private area for prayer alongside a separate restroom or sink to perform Wudu (ablution) helps Muslim employees feel included in the workplace. The prayer area can also be multipurpose and serve as a sanctuary for people of other beliefs.
Ramadan is another opportunity to support Muslim employees and acknowledge their fasting needs. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during this month and may experience occasional headaches and bouts of lethargy and low energy. Ask them how you can better support them during this important holiday, whether it’s enabling them to work from home, come in late, or pursue other flexible options.
Sometimes company events, training days, and networking activities are planned in the middle of Ramadan, which means Muslims cannot attend or fully participate, so try adjusting those dates. Ramadan and other Muslim celebrations, including Eid ul-Adha, and Eid ul-Fitr, are based on the lunar calendar, so dates vary year to year. To support scheduling needs, proactively ask Muslim employees about their commitments during those dates and respect them. By focusing on their needs and adjusting to accommodate them, you ensure that your Muslim employees feel appreciated, valued, and respected.
Offer compassion and support.
Muslims in many countries are persecuted due to their religious identity and faith convictions. Hearing about this on a regular basis can be unsettling and traumatic, as can news of Muslim-related terrorism. In a recent survey, 78% of Muslims reported feeling anxious and upset at work after hearing news of Muslim-related terrorism. Many believed they had to voice their disassociation and denounce any terror-related incidents lest anyone think they support terrorism. They fear being judged, labeled, or blamed as their faith is publicly tied to heinous acts of violence. They may fear hate attacks or abuse, especially Muslim women wearing hijab.
It’s essential to acknowledge when such events occur and to reach out to Muslim colleagues to check in on their emotional well-being. This can make them feel seen and heard and reassure them that the organization supports them. Even better, take tangible steps to increase their safety, such as reimbursing rideshares in lieu of public transportation and offering bystander intervention training to all employees.
Poor social support, interpersonal prejudice, and discrimination in a social environment can lead to social exclusion and compromise psychological safety, preventing Muslim women from fully engaging as team members. Provide them with opportunities to be vulnerable and share their challenges in a safe space — one without fear of blame or accusations — that encourages open and candid conversations. If necessary, you can offer cultural and faith-sensitive support, which entails understanding a Muslim woman’s background, ethnicity, and belief system while accommodating and respecting differences in opinions, values, and attitudes.
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Muslim women often experience intersecting disadvantages in the workplace, and it’s time for faith affiliation to become a part of a company’s DEI efforts. The strategies offered here will help Muslim women employees feel more included and give them a renewed sense of identity that has long been denied or worse, misunderstood.