By Dr. Mahjabeen Naaz
It is well established that Allah allows women to make choices in regards to 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 in order 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 have to.
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 a number of 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 Muslim’s way of life. Muslim women who work experience a great test in their faith. There are many struggles in today’s work environment that make it very hard to balance Islamic principles and practices with those of West’s work culture. This article will examine working Muslim women’s challenges with regard to Hijaab, Muslim communication at work, the obligations and requirements of the Prayer, the obligations and requirements of Halaal dieting (Islamic dietary code that tells what foods are allowed for consumption), work relationships with non-Muslims, Islamic etiquette at work, and business ethics.
Hijaab: 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 Hijaab. The Quran, for example, states what means: “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.”[The Quran 24:31]
In reality, however, Muslim women who work have many different ways of handling Hijaab. Some women completely shy away from wearing Hijaab out of fear that it will invoke some form of opposition from their manager and coworkers. They practice a chameleon approach, wearing Hijaab when they feel it is “safe” or when it is more conducive for a particular activity. For example, they may wear Hijaab only when they attend the Mosque or when they perform the Prayer. Other Muslim women wear Hijaab whenever they leave their home. They wear Hijaab in an effort to achieve piety, faith, to please Allah, to maintain their identity or simply because they feel wearing Hijaab is beautiful. Some women wear Hijaab at work to assert that judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction.
By wearing Hijaab to work these women are more visible. Due to a lack of understanding about Hijaab, they are perceived as oppressed, passive and unintelligent. There is a tendency for women who wear Hijaab to stand out, leaving them vulnerable to taunting and discriminators 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 Hijaab explained that a Muslim woman who does not wear Hijaab at her place of work made her life at work miserable. On the other hand, the manager of this woman who wears Hijaab, 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 the Prayer 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 the Friday congregational prayer.
Working Muslim women approach wearing Hijaab in 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 Hijaab that covers my hair, neck, and bosom. I wear a Hiijaab to cover the curves of 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 religion or way of life. I wore a partial Hijaab out of fear of how full Hijaab would look on me, out of fear of what co-workers would think of me and 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 (Hayaa’) does not bring anything except good (Muslim).
It is important that we understand that wearing Hijaab 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 Hijaab is personal. As Muslims, we must do what brings us closer to Allah and makes us better people in preparation for the Hereafter.
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 “assalaamu alaykum’ when meeting another Muslim and before speaking to another Muslim. When a Muslim is greeted, the proper response should be at least to or better than the initial greeting. The better greeting is “May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you” or “wa alaykumuassalam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuhu.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
As described in the previous section on Hijaab, Muslims can 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 Hijaab 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 Salaam, 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 Hadeeth says: “Muslims should greet those people that they know as well as those people that they do not know.” [Al-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 the Prayer
Adhering to obligations of the Prayer is not always a challenge for Muslim women who work. Some workplaces designate an area or room for Muslims to perform the Prayer, while others choose not to address the issue. In some cases requests or accommodations are declined all together. In Islam, we know that performing Prayer is fundamental to believing in God. The Prayer is each Muslim’s time to connect and communicate with Allah. One of the benefits of the Prayer is for our sins to be washed away.
In cases when there is not a designated place to perform the Prayer, 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 the Prayer. At one time, I chose a public area that was out in the open. Later, I was advised that performing the Prayer alone in public may jeopardize my physical safety. I began to make up my Prayers when I returned home. However, over time, deferred Prayers, usually Thuhr (noon) and ‘Asr (afternoon), turned into an accumulation of missed Prayers. If I had to make errands after leaving work, Maghrib (sunset prayer) was added to the Prayers I missed. Finally, I decided to perform the Prayer at my desk while sitting down. This has worked for me so far. Allah does not want the believers to endure unnecessary difficulties. When the Prophet Muhammad, ￼, was asked which deed is the best, he, ￼, said: “Performing the Prayer at its due time.” [Muslim]
I also experienced other challenges with regards to the Prayer. Out of fear of what others would think about me when I made ablution (the ritual purification before prayer) in the ladies room, I would try to make ablution when I thought no one was in the ladies room. As I grew in confidence and faith, I began to make ablution whether there was anyone in the ladies room or not. The Quran Says (what means): “O you who believe! When you intend to offer the Prayer, 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”[Quran 5:6]
The Prayer 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 employees’ need to offer the Prayer. It is best therefore to make it known to your employers and to ask of them such accommodation.
Obligations and requirements Halaal dieting
The best way for working Muslim women to maintain a Halaal diet at work is to bring a lunch. If she wants to have lunch in the food court, she should select foods that are Halaal. The Quran and Hadeeths tell us that food from the People of the Book is permissible. It says, “The food (slaughtered animals) of the People of the Book is permissible for you.” [Quran 5:5] However, in a food court or fast food setting, we can not determine whether the food is made from people of the book. Thus the safest way to adhere to a Halaal diet at work is by eating permissible foods 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 religion. 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 have to 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 what means: “And it has already been revealed to you in the Rook (this Quran) 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.”[Quran 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 Hijaab 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 [Quran 24:31] It also states that men and women who are strangers to one another have to lower their gaze” [Quran 24: 31] If a man and woman talk to one another they must be respectful of one another. An atmosphere of dignity with Taqwa (piety) of Allah must be maintained during the whole period of interaction [Quran 24:31]. The Quran says what means, “Help one another in virtue, righteousness, and piety; but do not help one another in sin and transgression.” [Quran 5:2] Any Muslim woman who chooses to work must know Islamic laws regarding men-women interaction and do her best to let others be aware of them and maintain them.
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 he or she has worked by exaggerating the time they have worked, they will get paid for time they did not work. In order 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, the Nafs(human desires) are very strong, especially if the there is economic need to receive a complete or inflated pay check. 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, it says what means: “O you who have believed, fulfill (your) obligations.” [Quran 5:1] It is absolutely Haraam(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 religion. Treating issues of backbiting and slander with indifference is serious because it is a great sin. Although the lure of gossip amongst 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 thinking 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 little, it is in fact very big in the sight of Allah. The Quran says what mean: “Behold, you received it on your tongues, and said out of your mouths things which you had no knowledge; and you thought it to be a light matter, while it was most serious in the sight of Allah ” [Quran 24:15]
For those women who have to work, the challenges of today’s work environment are serious, but a sincere Muslim women who does her best to know her Islam and tries to maintain being a Muslim, meeting these challenges are not impossible.
[Dr. Mahjabeen Naaz is a Scholar and Writer based in Patna, Bihar.]