Mumbai Imagine a Hindu woman asking her neighbor to bring a handful of soil from Mecca to keep as a souvenir of the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Or think of an entire office bidding farewell to their fellow Muslim on their way to Haj.
In his former office, Zamirul Hasan, a technical officer in government attire, was offering namaz in a space specially made available to him by a colleague who he discovered was a follower of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). After he left, his colleague lamented that this space had been turned into a makeshift bar by new Hindu recruits.
Many stereotypes were shattered when speakers shared their experiences on “Muslims and the Workplace”, in a discussion hosted by activist Ghulam Arif’s community chat platform at Khilafat House on Saturday.
With Muslims being a minority in most workplaces, staying true to their religious identity at work could be a challenge. Speakers were able to do this, but only after sticking to one basic rule: developing genuine respect for other faiths.
A vivid illustration of this was provided by Dr. Vasika Seliya, head of department at a private medical school. A first-generation professional in the Chiliya community, known for its non-vegetarian restaurants, she preferred to take the vegetarian lunch from home so she could share it with her colleagues. When she took non-veg food, she didn’t use the microwave which was used by everyone.
“I don’t see it as a compromise,” she said. “It’s just the minimum adjustment I can make for colleagues waiting for me while I offer namaz and abstaining from drinking alcohol while sitting at the same table as me.”
Mohammed Ali Shaikh, an IT manager, said Muslims could retain their religious identity at work without compromise as long as they recognized it as a professional space. “I sat at a table abroad with customers where the most delicious meat was ordered, but I could not participate because it was not halal. I drank a soda while d ‘others swallowed a bottle of wine,’” Shaikh said, but said none of this affected his relationship with his colleagues.
Decades older than him, AM Desnavi, retired executive director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, had come to the same conclusion as Shaikh: the need to see his religious culture as distinct from workplace culture. He had worked 12-hour days during Ramzan, breaking his fast with a solitary rendezvous while his colleagues rehabilitated with tea and refreshments. Retired ATS policeman Iqbal Shaikh recalled breaking his fast with a date often while traveling inside a police vehicle.
“Conflict-free identity” should be the goal, the speakers said. For this, exposure to various faiths was an advantage. Dr. Seliya had grown up among Christian and Parsi neighbors and attended English and Urdu schools. Shaikh had chosen a convent school for his children rather than an Islamic school; while Zamirul Hasan had chosen to live in a mixed locality.
Had none of them faced anti-Muslim prejudice given the current political climate? While Dr Seliya pointed out that not all Hindus were anti-Muslim, Shaikh spoke of “jokes” made in the canteen, offensive statements and annoyance over the film Kashmir Files. “You have to develop thick skin,” he said.
At the same time, he and Desnavi pointed out that anti-Muslim prejudice and right-wing radicalism were on the rise across the world. “As Muslims, we have to be prepared for this,” Desnavi said, “as much as we have to be prepared for women to join the workforce in droves.”