It’s that time of year again and even though there’s no snow in sight and the sun is shining down on me as I write this, it’s still beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. And I love it. I love the atmosphere, the spirit, the lights, the decorations, the parties. I even like Christmas pudding, on those rarer-than-rare occasions I manage to find one that’s alcohol-free. I’m Muslim, you see. I don’t drink. And as much as I enjoy Christmas as a born and bred Brit, I’m not Christian and I don’t really celebrate it outside the workplace.
Ah, I see you rolling your eyes now. These Muslims, stopping their kids from participating in the nativity. These Muslims, taking over our country and trying to impose Shariah law on us. These Muslims, trying to stop us from celebrating Christmas.
Actually, I’m not. I have no desire to take over anything, and I’m really looking forward to my son’s Christmas show. I can’t wait to see him all dressed up singing the songs I sang myself as a child. And before you start thinking I’m the exception, one of those modern, liberals that are Muslim in name only, I’m not. I wear a headscarf. I pray. I abstain from consuming alcohol. I eat halal. But I’m also British, and a key British value is tolerance and acceptance; everyone gets to celebrate their religious festivals however they see fit, and the rest can all join in.
That’s why, when Christmas comes along every year, I join in the celebrations with my colleagues. I go to the Christmas party, even though I don’t drink and it can get a bit uncomfortable. I agonise over buying a nice Secret Santa present that my colleague will like. I make a token South Asian dish for the Christmas pot-luck (everyone gets so disappointed if I bring something non-ethnic). I send greeting cards to my clients. And I’m not complaining by the way, I enjoy participating.
Acknowledging non-Christian celebrations
After the excitement of Christmas and New Year fades, it’s all back to order at work and when Ramadan rolls along (the dates change every year), followed by Eid, no-one bats an eyelid. If we’re lucky, we get an emailer wishing us Happy Eid – but please use your annual leave to celebrate, if you must – after thirty gruelling days of fasting.
Of course, every UK workplace differs in their approach to non-Christian celebrations. I worked in a library a really long time ago, just after I graduated, in fact. As an avid reader who also enjoys interacting with people, I loved it. There were at least five Muslim staff working in my branch, rotating according to the schedule, but come Ramadan, we were still expected to take lunch between 12pm-2pm even though we weren’t eating. We were given 10 minutes to break our fasts at 6:30pm, when we had just enough time to gulp down a glass of water, a couple of dates and offer a quick prayer after 15 hours of fasting and standing on our feet the whole day.
I’ve also had the (dis?)pleasure of working in a call centre where I’ve broken my fast whilst on a call to a customer, and like most people from my generation, I’ve done retail stints during Uni that were similar to my library experience.
I’ve seen the flipside, too. I’ve worked in Dubai where Ramadan and Eid are a massive deal. We got to finish work at 3pm in Ramadan, every company hosted huge Ramadan iftar parties for their staff and clients, and everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – were given 2/3 days off for Eid as well as a little present.
Obviously, the Dubai example is one extreme, and my UK call centre experience is the other, and as Christmas rolls round again, I can’t help but wonder what the happy medium is. Is it okay for companies with a diverse workforce to put little to no effort in recognising its employees’ religious festivals? Or should today’s multi-cultural Britain also be reflected in the way companies celebrate religious festivals?
The Multi-faith approach
At the risk of being labelled *that* awkward Muslim, I for one would love it if all companies were like my former employer – a Multi-faith charity based in London. We celebrated Christmas and Ramadan/Eid and Diwali with equal fervour. We had a Christmas lunch and secret Santa during Christmas, an Eid pot-luck party at the end of Ramadan and a Diwali dinner in November. Non-Muslim colleagues joined the Muslims in fasting at least once in Ramadan, and everyone broke their fast together. It was similar to how I imagine Syria was pre-civil war; a melting pot of religions that got along so well that often you couldn’t tell who was what; where one ended and the other began.
But because I don’t want to be *that* awkward Muslim, I doubt I’ll ever mention it to my next employer, unless they actually ask me. I’ll have enough to deal with as it is; with fielding questions about my loyalties (no, I wasn’t happy when 9/11 happened, yes, I was happy that Bin Laden was caught), answering questions about my clothes (no, I don’t wear my headscarf in the shower) and turning down invites to the pub (sorry, I don’t drink). With all that and more, I doubt I’ll want to rock the boat and draw any further attention to me or my religion. In fact, I’ll probably be so thrilled that someone has looked beyond my appearance and hired me that for a long time, I won’t even care that Eid came and went once again without any acknowledgement.
But one day, it will start bothering me, as it always does. It’ll bother me not because I am entitled, and ungrateful, but because every time I celebrate you without you acknowledging me, I’m taken back a hundred years to colonial Britain and I find myself asking if you still consider me to be a second-class citizen… and once again, I’ll wonder if there’ll come a day when people don’t just claim to tolerate diversity, they embrace it.