Ramadan in the Workplace

Religious minorities make up a significant part of the U.S. American workforce. In fact, although data from The Pew Forum Religion & Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey show that religious minorities make up approximately 34% of the population in California and roughly 26.5% of the national population, religion is still not as readily included in discussions of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. There is one minority religion than has gained increased awareness and scrutiny: Islam. Some Islamic practices, specifically fasting during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, may be difficult to navigate in the workplace. This may be true for Muslim and non-Muslim employees.

In 2013, the vast majority of Muslim in North America are observing the month of Ramadan from July 8th through August 7th. Because the Islamic calendar uses a lunar calendar, the dates shift every year and each year there is often disagreement in U.S. American Muslim communities regarding actual dates. Nevertheless, Muslims will fast during Ramadan, which means that they will abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity during daylight hours. Many Muslims will also make it a point to abstain from gossip, arguing, and many other negatives. However, Muslims are exempt from fasting if they have illnesses or diseases, are pregnant or nursing a baby, or are not mentally competent. In Islam, it is believed that the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, came down from God (Allah) through Angel Gabriel to the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. Therefore, Muslims also try to read the entirety of the Qur’an during the month of Ramadan.

Fasting from food and drink in the workplace may seem very strange for non-Muslim employees who are unfamiliar with Islam. It may seem like an extreme hardship, especially during the summer and more so for employees who work outdoors. Non-Muslim employees and supervisors may fear for the health and safety of Muslim employees who are fasting this month. Many seem to have the hardest time with the concept of no drinking. Supervisors may worry about the productivity and energy level of their Muslim employees during this month. They may also have other concerns like wondering if it is alright to eat or drink in front of the Muslim employee or if they should reschedule that lunch meeting or company picnic. These non-Muslims in the workplace are not alone; many Muslims actually have similar concerns.

Many Muslims employees are concerned with how to tell others about fasting without feeling awkward or even judged. Many also worry about handling the difficulty of the first 3-5 days of fasting since the body and mind have to get used to such abstinence. Additionally, Muslims often joke about “Ramadan breath.” Because of the prolonged period without food or drink, the mouth can become dry and have an odor similar to morning breath. This is especially worrisome if the employee deals face-to-face with internal and/or external customers often.

So, don’t worry if a colleague is evasive or absent during morning coffee breaks, water cooler chatter, lunch, or other events that involve food and drink. Ramadan, is a great time to openly and compassionately discuss religious differences in the workplace on a micro or even a macro level. It is also an ideal time to stretch our diversity and inclusivity muscles.

Jameelah Xochitl Medina, PhD

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