When I first left my home country, Egypt, to study abroad in the US, one of the things I promised myself is that no matter what, I will not let anything stand in the way of my practicing my faith and that I would advocate for myself and others who practice the same faith.
And I still stand by this.
When I graduated from college, I moved to Utah in September 2019 and started working at a company called Pluralsight. Even though I am working in tech and even though tech is generally more diverse and tolerant than most other industries, I am the only Arab and practicing Muslim—whom I am aware of at least—in my company. This is quite understandable given the demographics of Utah. And, in all fairness, Pluralsight is working hard to bring more diversity to the company, and I will talk about how they did that in my case later in this blog post.
To stick to the promise I made to myself, whenever I accept a position, I always make it clear to my managers that my spirituality and prayers are very important to me and that I will need to take breaks from work to observe my prayers. These conversations are especially important for Friday (Jumua) prayers, where I need to leave my office and go to a mosque in the middle of the workday (that was during the good ole days before COVID) to pray a congregational prayer (think of it as the Muslim version of Mass or Shabbat).
Now when I joined Pluralsight, there was no generic prayer/meditation space, and the company was already outgrowing the office space we had. So, understandably, it was quite difficult to convert any of the current office spaces to a prayer/meditation room. But I still needed to do my prayers.
So I spoke to my manager about it and told him exactly what I needed to do my prayers at work:
He immediately connected me with diversity and facilities employees at the company, and in the span of weeks, we had one of the storage rooms at the company converted to a space where I can do my prayers. They made it very clear that this would only be a short-term solution until we move to the new headquarters (which was scheduled to open this June.. but COVID), and we all agreed that this was very reasonable, given that I was the only person utilizing this space for prayer!
Since we didn't have gender-neutral bathrooms, and since our office space was leased, it was very difficult to find a solution for my second request, which, again, we all agreed was very reasonable. Even then they did everything they could to find a solution for this problem, going as far as suggesting that we keep a bucket in that room that I could fill with water and do my ablutions there. While we ended up not doing that, the gesture was much appreciated.
My manager kept constantly following up with me throughout the entire process to make sure things were getting done, and they were.
A few months passed and then a diversity employee at Pluralsight reached out to me to schedule some time to chat about my needs in the new prayer space. We chatted for 30 minutes and I was impressed by her attention to detail and the research she did just to make sure that my (and Muslims who join the company in the future) needs will be fulfilled.
Below are just small snippets of what she asked for or mentioned:
Most people don't know—or even care to bother learning—about all of these needs, and I was grateful for her thoughtfulness.
The reason I am writing this blog post is twofold.
I speak with many Muslims who conceal their identity (Muhammad becomes a Mo on a resume, for example) when applying for companies because they fear they won't be hired or even pass the resume screening. And this is TOTALLY understandable; when my (and my family's) financial security is on the line, the last thing I will be thinking about is diversity or social justice issues.
And hijabis have it the worst; they scream "I'm Muslim" wherever they go. I've spoken to hijabi friends of mine who are absolutely brilliant but got rejected at jobs they were applying for without any clear reasons.
But I want to remind you that when you apply for a company that rejects you for being a Muhammad or a hijabi, that's not a company that is even worth working for because they lack the basic fundamentals of respect and equity.
And even if you were to join that company, you will probably face covert discrimination.
I've had a very dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a hijabi, tell me when I was applying for jobs that "you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you."
I took her advice to heart.
While interviewing with Pluralsight, I made it very clear that I am a practicing Muslim and that I have religious and spiritual needs. I talked about Halal food. I talked about my prayers (including Jumua). And eventually, after I joined, I expressed my need for a private prayer space.
Had I sensed even the slightest bit of judgment or discrimination from them during the interview process, I wouldn't have joined them.
It's very important to note that I am highly fortunate and privileged to be working in an industry that respects people's freedom of religious practice, and I completely understand how difficult this could be for those working in different industries.
With that said, I would encourage you—if your daily spiritual/religious practice is important to you—to bring it to your manager's attention at least after you've accepted the position if you can't bring this up during your interviews. Your manager simply will never know what your needs are until you voice them out. Most managers now will be more than happy to help support you.
In case you're still worried though, legally, no one can discriminate against you.
That is not to say you should be a jerk about any of this; being as cooperative and understanding as you could during the process of accommodation will only earn you everyone's respect and help things move forward (faster).
And that's not because they're evil (well, some are); it's simply because they won't invest resources in something that their employees don't have a need for.
With that said, many people fear that when they speak up they will be seen as "non-cooperative" or as "not being team players", but that's exactly how we keep this toxic culture. If you could be a catalyst for making your work environment healthier and more welcoming for a certain group of people (in my case it was Muslims), you should absolutely act on that!
While we all fear for our job security—which takes us back to reason 1—if you work at the right company, you'll actually be respected more for advocating for minorities.
Because of a simple request to my manager, the new headquarters is designed to include four "quiet rooms", two of which are specifically dedicated to religious worship; something that was not even considered before I spoke up about my spiritual needs.
While this is certainly a privilege I have given my industry and company, you should not shy away from asking your manager to accommodate something as basic as your religious/spiritual needs.
If an immigrant on a student VISA was able to have a conversation that sparked change, I think you could too. And if enough people do it, we all win!
Special thanks to Yousr Al-Shaarawy for helping out with this post!
The beliefs and statements included in this article are my own opinions, and do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers.