The Challenges Faced by Working Muslim Women

The Challenges Faced by Working Muslim Women

IT IS WELL established that Allah allows women to make choices about balancing responsibilities within and outside of the home. Muslim women choose to work outside of the home for various reasons. Some want to supplement the income of their husbands to achieve higher living standards.Others want to establish college and other educational savings for their children. Apart from a few career-oriented women, a large majority of women work because they must. Like other women who work, Muslim women have the primary responsibility of tending to the needs of their homes and families in addition to maintaining their careers.

However, working outside of the home poses many challenges for Muslim women. The challenges exist not only because believers are in a day-to-day struggle to please Allah but because nearly everything in non-Muslim societies is in direct conflict with the Islamic way of life. Muslim women must constantly guard against pressures to engage in social norms that contradict a Muslim’s way of life. Muslim women who work often experience a great test in their iman (faith).

There are many struggles in today’s work environment that make it very hard to balance Islamic principles and practices with those of America’s work culture. This article will examine working Muslim women’s challenges with regard to

  • Hijab
  • Muslim communication at work
  • The obligations and requirements of salah
  • The obligations and requirements of halal diet (islamic dietary code that tells what foods are allowed for consumption)
  • Work relationships with non-muslims
  • Islamic etiquette at work
  • Business ethics

Hijab: To Cover or Not to Cover

The Quran and the Sunnah teach Muslim women that men and women are equal and that individuals should not be judged according to gender, beauty, wealth, or privilege. The only thing that makes one person better than another is their character. They also teach that women must dress modestly and maintain a proper hijab. The Quran, for example, states,

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 have no sense of the shame of sex. [ Surat Al-Nur, 24:31]

In reality, however, Muslim women who work have many different ways of handling hijab. Some women shy completely away from wearing hijab out of fear that it will invoke some form of opposition from their manager and coworkers. They practice a chameleon approach, wearing hijab when they feel it is “safe” or when it is more conducive to a particular activity.

For example, they may wear hijab only when they attend the masjid or when they perform salah. Other Muslim women wear hijab whenever they leave their homes. They wear hijab in an effort to achieve piety, iman (faith), to please Allah, to maintain their identity or simply because they feel wearing hijab is beautiful. Some women wear hijab at work to assert that judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction.

By wearing hijab to work these women are more visible. Due to a lack of understanding about hijab, they are perceived as oppressed, passive and unintelligent. There is a tendency for women who wear hijab to standout, leaving them vulnerable to taunting and discriminatory practices by many. These perceptions have profound ramifications for women who aspire for executive, management-level, and supervisory positions. There is also a tendency for Muslim women to be overlooked for promotions.

One Muslim woman who wears hijab explained that a Muslim woman who does not wear hijab at her place of work made her life at work miserable. On the other hand, the manager over this woman who wears hijab, who happens to be non-Muslim, was very accommodating. The manager authorized the installation of a door for her office cubicle so that she could make salah in private. She was the only employee besides her manager with a door. She was also allowed to leave two hours every Friday so that she could attend Salat Al-Jumu’ah (the Friday congregational prayer).

Working Muslim women approach wearing hijab a different way. From the moment I converted to Islam until now, I’ve gotten the whole gamut of strange looks, stares, and covert glances. As a professional with two graduate degrees, I wear the hijab that covers my hair, neck, and bosom. I wear a jilbab to cover the curves on my body. I do this because I believe my body should be kept private and is only to be seen by my husband.

I admit that the way I cover has changed as I gained more understanding about my din (religion or way of life). I wore a partial hijab out of fear of how full hijab would look on me, out of fear of what co-workers would think of me and how they might treat me, and out of fear of how the world would view me. Women in America are still heavily judged by their physical appearance. Yet Muslim women learn that modesty is all-good and that modesty (haya’) does not bring anything except good (Muslim).

It is important that we understand that wearing hijab is a matter of religion, not a personal choice. It is an obligation that must be fulfilled by every believing woman. How a woman decides to wear hijab is personal. As Muslims, we must do what brings us closer to Allah and makes us better people in preparation for the Hereafter.

Muslim Communications

Islam teaches us that Muslims are obligated to greet one another. The Prophet Muhammad taught that one should greet a Muslim with “Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah” or “assalamu alaikum’ when meeting another Muslim and before speaking to another Muslim. When a Muslim is greeted, the proper response should be at least to return the same or better than the initial greeting. The better response to a greeting is “May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you” or “wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

As described in the previous section on hijab, Muslims might also have indifferent and sometimes antagonistic relationships with one another in the workplace. While it is ideal for Muslims to acknowledge one another, many Muslims refrain from using the greeting in certain places.

In terms of the workplace, some Muslims prefer to camouflage themselves amongst non-Muslims. Some feel the greeting should not be used in professional settings that are predominantly non-Muslim. This poses a concern for women who wear hijab in the workplace. Personally, I have experienced what seems to be ‘shamefulness’ amongst Muslim women in the workplace. Even if a Muslim woman responds with salam, sometimes it is in a mumbled form that is barely recognizable as a greeting. Whatever the reason, we must be proud as Muslims and acknowledge one another. One hadith says,

Muslims should greet those people that they know as well as those people that they do not know. (Bukhari and Muslim)

Muslims should be bold and greet Muslims in the workplace and everywhere in an enthusiastic manner. The Muslim that initiates the greeting will receive blessings.

Obligations and Requirements of Salah

Adhering to obligations of salah is not always a challenge for Muslim women who work. Some workplaces designate an area or room for Muslims to perform salah, while others choose not to address the issue. In some cases requests for accommodations are declined all together. In Islam, we know that making salah is fundamental to believing in God. Salah is each Muslim’s time to connect and communicate with Allah, one of the benefits of salah is for our sins to be washed away.

In cases when there is not a designated place to make salah, Muslim women have to find creative ways to fulfill what Allah has commanded. Here are some practices that have worked for me. At my place of work, there is not a designated area for salah. At one time, I chose a public area that was out in the open. Later, I was advised that performing salah alone in public may jeopardize my physical safety. I began to make up my salahs when I returned home.

However, over time, deferred salahs, (usually Zuhr and ‘Asr) turned into an accumulation of missed salahs. If I had to run errands after leaving work, Maghrib was added to the salahs I missed. Finally, I decided to perform salah at my desk while sitting down. This has worked for me so far. Allah does not want the believers to endure unnecessary difficulties.

When Prophet Muhammad was asked which deed is the best, he said, “Performing salah at its due time.” (Muslim)

I also have experienced other challenges with regards to salah. Out of fear of what others would think about me when I made wudu (the ritual purification before salah) in the ladies’ room, I would try to make wudu when I thought no one was in the ladies’ room. As I grew in confidence and faith, I began to make wudu whether there was anyone in the ladies’ room or not. The Quran says,

O you who believe! When you intend to offer salah, wash your faces and your hands (forearms) up to the elbows, rub (by passing wet hands over) your heads, and (wash) your feet up to the ankles. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:6]

Salah is a pillar of Islam and must be made in a fashion that fulfills all of its requirements. And this fact is becoming increasingly known in the business world. I have heard of countless situations where managers and companies have done all they could to accommodate Muslim employee’s need to make salah. It is best therefore to make it known to your employers and to ask of them such accommodation.

Obligations and Requirements of a Halal Diet

The best way for working Muslim women to maintain a halal diet at work is to bring a lunch. If she wants to have lunch in the food court, she should select foods that are halal. The Quran and Hadith tell us that food of the People of the Book is permissible. It says,

The food (slaughtered animals) of the People of the Book is permissible for you. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:5]

However, in a food court or fast food setting, we cannot determine whether the food is halal. Thus the safest way to adhere to a halal diet at work is by eating foods that can be checked for permissibility or by bringing a lunch from home.

Work Relationships with Non-Muslims

Some Muslim women work in an Islamic environment. Working in an Islamic environment enables women to flourish in the din. However, most Muslim women are a very small minority in their respective workplaces. When the ratio of Muslim and non-Muslims favors non-Muslims, Muslim women should decide whether they will become a recluse and stay to themselves at work or if they will mingle with their non-Muslim counterparts.

In choosing to mingle with non-Muslims, certain behaviors and conversations that are inappropriate may arise. In such instances, it is best for Muslim women to excuse themselves from the situation. The Quran says,

And it has already been revealed to you in the Book (this Qur’an) that when you hear the verses of Allah being denied and mocked at, then sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that; (but if you stayed with them) certainly in that case you would be like them. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:140]

Islamic Etiquette at Work

Sexual harassment and gender-biased discrimination affects all American women. In America, women are viewed as sexual objects. This perception impacts women in the workplace. Thus, those who wear hijab feel more protected than their non-Muslim and non-covering Muslim counterparts.

If a male boss asks a Muslim woman to sit next to him at a social gathering should she do it? How should she respond to a male co-worker who hints that he is interested in her? Islamic law prohibits men and women from mixing without necessity. When men and women are together, the natural sexual attractiveness could lead them into temptation.

Islamic etiquette provides guidance for situations in which mixing between men and women are unavoidable for societal necessity. The Quran says awrah (all parts of a woman’s body except for the face and hands) must be covered as prescribed by Islamic law [Surat Al-Nur, 24:31]. It also states that men and women who are strangers to one another should “lower their gaze” [24:31].   If a man and woman talk to one another they must be respectful to one another. An atmosphere of dignity with taqwa of Allah must be maintained during the whole period of interaction [24:31].

The Quran says,

Help one another in virtue, righteousness, and piety; but do not help one another in sin and transgression. [Surat Al-Maidah, 5:2]

Any Muslim woman who chooses to work must know Islamic regulations regarding men-women’s interaction and do her best to let others be aware of them and maintain them.

Business Ethics

Working Muslim women meet people from all walks of life with various personalities and people who practice various ethical norms. Sometimes managers and co-workers engage in unethical behaviors. For example, if a manager misrepresents the hours that he or she has worked by exaggerating their time, they will get paid for time they did not work.

To bring others into the deceptive practice, they may suggest that other workers engage in the same practice. Although it may seem clear that one would not choose to go along with this practice and other forms of deception like it, still, the nafs (human desires) are very strong, especially if there is economic need to receive a complete or inflated paycheck. Instead of engaging in such practices, she should find ways to make up missed work hours or report the hours she worked accurately.

The Quran teaches Muslims to honor contracts and obligations in general,

O you who believe! Fulfill (your) obligations. [Surat Al-Maidah, 5:1]

It is haram (unlawful) for the Muslim to lie, cheat or otherwise be dishonest in carrying out any job, big or small.

When determining the degree to which they will assimilate, Muslim women must refrain from backbiting, stealing, cheating, or any other unacceptable behavior that undermines their din. Treating issues of backbiting and slander with indifference is serious because it is a great sin.

Although the lure of gossip among managers and co-workers is strong, Muslim women must refrain from such activity. It is detrimental to faith. Many Muslim women engage in backbiting and gossip without even thinking twice about it. They think it is a minor matter; however, Allah reminds us to be careful. Even though Muslim women think they are doing something minor, it is in fact very big in the sight of Allah. The Quran says,

Behold, you received it on your tongues, and said out of your mouths things about which you had no knowledge; and you thought it to be a light matter, while it was most serious in the sight of Allah. [Surat Al-Nur, 24:15]

For those women who must work, the challenges of today’s work environment are serious. But it is not impossible for a sincere Muslim woman to meet these challenges when she does her best to know her Islam to maintain it.

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