Workplaces must make room for Muslim women – starting with our toxic drinking culture

Nimra Shahid
While many Muslim men also struggle to navigate drink culture, the experience is intensified for Muslim women: Getty Images

Imagine you’re in a room where everyone else is speaking a secret language that you don’t understand. You feel awkward and leave. For many Muslims, this is what attending a drinks-centred networking event can feel like and it’s damaging their career prospects.

Last night’s launch in parliament of Dr Suriyah Bi’s research into Muslim women’s experiences of work revealed that only 17 per cent of those who wished to enter the media industry actually did so after they graduated. Unsurprising, then, that only 0.4 per cent of all journalists are Muslim.

Yet media is not the only profession where Muslim women feel they are being held back by being teetotal. 26-year-old trainee corporate lawyer *Maha Al-Habib tells me that drinking is the primary way her team socialises: “I feel my manager is closer to my colleague because she regularly joins them for Friday night drinks whereas I don’t. I’m worried that my career progression will be impacted if I don’t join staff at the pub.”

Maha’s concerns about her chances of promotion aren’t unsubstantiated. While over 84.2 per cent of British Muslim women were found to be actively engaged in the labour market, almost half of all participants in Dr Bi’s study were earning below the ONS’s average household income of £28,000. Maha’s decision to skip hanging out with her colleagues on Friday night is costing her the chance to rise to the 8 per cent of BME partners at large law firms.

If the UK has over £3.6bn of assets from Muslim clientele waiting to be tapped as the Law Society states, the question begs, why are firms not doing more to accommodate her? The answer appears to lie with age-old power structures.

A Law Society report on BME solicitors highlighted a case where trainees like Martha were made to sign a contract where they would be “trained to the best of (the firm’s) ability” but couldn’t be guaranteed a job – in this case, all the white trainees were offered jobs.

The lack of diversity amongst top solicitors as seniority increases can’t be denied as a factor in maintaining a drinking culture; which has led to the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law society of England and Wales releasing guidelines on the issue.

While many Muslim men also struggle to navigate drink culture, the experience is intensified for Muslim women, who the Women’s Equalities and Select Committee found often face a triple penalty of being Muslim, female and ethnic minority. One Muslim woman in Dr Bi’s research, who wishes to remains completely anonymous, has felt such scrutiny first hand from her manager:

“I told him I didn’t feel comfortable with him touching me in a specific way, to which he started saying horrible things about how I shouldn’t be in this industry.” Her manager would add emotional blackmail, by saying he’d “bent over backwards” for her by allowing her not to serve alcohol.

The mental health impact on Muslim women who are pressured into being surrounded by alcohol can’t be underestimated. *Amira Ahmed, who is 22 and works in finance said she’ll never forget the time her colleague invited her to the pub for the third time while she was wearing hijab.

“I asked if we could grab dinner at a restaurant instead but she looked at me in shock and said that was ‘weird’. I’ve been left out of socials since, including my staff Christmas party.

I heard my manager was so drunk he couldn’t get into the last club. Socials weren’t the only thing I began being left out of though. My team members hold important meetings and won’t tell me they’re happening even when I’m doing the work. I feel like I’m left out because I’m Muslim and I’m leaving my workplace next month for my own wellbeing.”

Her comments echo *Fatima Aweis, a 23-year-old Civil Servant, who tells me she feels alienated by the drinking culture in her workplace: “If I’m not drinking with my colleagues when they are, they feel self-conscious because they’re in a state where they’re letting their guard down while I’m still in control of myself. It creates an uncomfortable power dynamic, where I’m not giving them what they need.”

The question remains, if 65 per cent of participants in Dr Suriyah Bi’s study have requested more understanding from employers to improve their work experiences, what would that understanding look like for Muslim women? I know I wouldn’t mind adopting Sweden’s fika (coffee and cake break) as my personal alternative to the pub. If dietary requirements like veganism and being gluten-free are catered for in many workplaces, then what’s the harm in catering for a section of staff who don’t drink alcohol?

The pervasive drinking culture in many workplaces is another barrier Muslim women have to endure on top of the multiple challenges highlighted by Dr Bi’s research. They are scrutinised from the moment they submit job applications. As Afzal Khan, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, pointed out at the launch, an applicant’s name alone can dampen their chances of getting an opportunity.

Then once they reach the workplace, nearly one out of five find themselves dealing with Islamophobia while almost one third encounter discrimination. If employers are going to have an outcry over their lack of diversity, they need to give us what we need to be accommodated.

*Names have been changed.

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