A More Inclusive Workplace: Celebrating Ramadan With Your Muslim Colleagues

Ways to be supportive in this special time

Written with input from Sahrish Qureshi, director, strategy and insights, VMLY&R, and co-chair of B.EAST (VMLY&R Asian ERG).

In my home country, Turkey, people refer to Ramadan as "the Sultan of Eleven Months." After living in New York for over four years, I can say that it used to feel like Christmas when I'd come together with family and friends during iftar meals (a meal at sundown to break the daily fast during Ramadan). Experiencing this holy month thousands of miles away from home in a country where the majority of the population isn't Muslim is a lot different. You must make an extra effort to live Ramadan because it just doesn't happen naturally. You can't hear the prayers from the mosques, you can't smell freshly baked pide (a special type of bread only baked during Ramadan) in the neighborhood bakery, and you can't casually have iftar with your colleagues at the office. Obviously, these are minor trade-offs you make when you sign up for immigrant life. 

I find myself grateful at times when someone doesn't cringe at my accent. Even worse, I'm grateful when I don't get "special" treatment at passport control because I am a citizen from a Muslim country, a product of Islamophobia skyrocketing after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since 9/11, being Muslim in the West doesn't always feel like a badge of honor.

In an ideal world, people would be more open, understanding and inclusive of the ways people practice their faith without paying special attention to it. But Ramadan is one of those times when your religion and how you practice it catches other people's attention. "Don't you even drink water?" "How do you brush your teeth?" or "Aren't you fasting?" are the kind of questions you might get from curious friends and colleagues. This is the beauty and strength of diversity and learning from each other's cultures. It's always a pleasure to share the richness of your culture as long as you don't feel judged. Unfortunately, years of Islamophobia in the West can have an effect on these kinds of conversations. Even with good intentions, some of these questions can have a different effect on your Muslim colleagues and friends because they have been traumatized by the way Islam has been covered in public discourse. That's why it's worth being a little bit more sensitive during Ramadan.

Muslims practice their religion and enjoy spirituality on their own terms throughout Ramadan. Some fast every day; some do it at least on the last day of the month. Some pray five times a day; some go to the mosque for the Ramadan holiday prayer. It's between every Muslim and their faith, which shouldn't be judged by anyone else. All will appreciate an inclusive workplace that respects the way they practice their faith.

To continue to promote an inclusive workplace, ensure you make your colleagues' work life easier by respecting the way they practice their faith. Here are some ways you can support your Muslim friends and colleagues during this special time: 

  • Show your support and encourage colleagues to observe the holidays that matter most to them in the way that they desire. You could also wish them well by saying "Ramadan mubarak," "Ramadan kareem" or simply "happy Ramadan." 
  • Be mindful and respectful of individuals in your team honoring Ramadan and be flexible where possible. Ramadan means waking up before sunrise and eating late after sunset, so employees might be replying to emails at unconventional times or be away from the screen a little longer for their prayers five times a day.
  • Go easy on the team lunch gatherings or happy hours because your Muslim colleagues may be fasting and may feel left out. 
  • Be flexible when you're scheduling meetings as your colleagues' energy may be low. Early morning or evening meetings should try to be avoided.
  • Not all your Muslim friends or colleagues will be fasting, so try not to publicly ask why. They might be having their period, pregnant, living with a chronic/acute illness, traveling or simply not practicing this year (and that's OK!).
  • When in doubt, ask questions. Your Muslim colleagues would love to share their experiences with you. 

Keep in mind, you don't have to be a Muslim to enjoy Ramadan with your friends, just as you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy Christmas. You can enjoy an iftar meal with your friends at a restaurant and try dishes from Muslim countries. You can enjoy special delicacies that are featured only during Ramadan. You can also ask if you can contribute to the charitable donations of your Muslim friends. In Islam, Zakat is a pillar of faith that urges Muslims to give to those in need or charitable causes at the end of Ramadan.

Keep an open mind, and even if you're not 100 percent sure of your choice of words, be sure to lead with good intent.

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Bediz Eker
Bediz Eker is executive director, strategy and insights, VMLY&R, and a member of B.EAST (VMLY&R Asian ERG).

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