Can I have a place to pray?

I was already running ten minutes late, but I still stopped at a cafe and walked to the back of the building. I found a quiet corner behind the cafe, laid down my prayer mat and did my afternoon prayer. When I got home, I quickly opened my laptop and fired up Skype. After a few rings, a friendly face appeared on the screen. The woman was an acquaintance that I had asked to interview.

‘So, you’ve mentioned that you work at a legal non-profit advocacy. Can you tell me your most memorable experience as a Muslim woman working at a non-profit organization?’

‘I am the in-house counsellor at a progressive, liberal non-profit organisation. I provide counselling to individuals of minority backgrounds after they face a traumatic experience following the exploitation of their rights. I use their traumas to humanise their cases in front of lawyers and judges. I have advocated for a gay man denied work. I have assisted a woman escaping domestic abuse. I have championed the rights of a Somali woman seeking higher pay. But there is one right that I can’t seem to guarantee.’

‘Whose?’ I asked.

‘My own’, the lady said as her voice saddened, ‘It is ironic that I advocate and work to protect the rights of minorities, yet my own rights are disregarded.’

‘What kind of rights are we talking about?’

‘Not anything big. I suppose it’s not a major right being violated. But my supervisor gives me a hard time when I want to pray. I mean why can’t I have a place to pray?’

Muslims are required to pray five times a day within the allotted times. That means stepping aside from work or school, retreating to a quiet space, and remembering God. This Muslim woman expresses her shock when she realises that ‘all people are not created equal’ as she struggles to find a place to pray in the workplace.

‘It’s the “liberal’s hypocrisy,”’ the woman said, ‘The liberal’s hypocrisy is an ideology where liberals advocate for “equality” and “freedom of choice” as long as those equalities and choices are in line with their agenda. Liberals discriminate against those who disagree with them.

They say we should believe in female equality, as long as a woman chooses not to be a housewife.

They say we should uphold freedom of speech, as long as a person is not an outspoken critic of Israel.

They say we should believe in freedom of choice as long as you do not choose to pray at work.

One day, after providing counsel to a client, the time for my afternoon prayer set in. My supervisor and I had just finished evaluating this man’s case file when I asked her whether I could have a place to pray. She just stared at me. At first, I thought she didn’t know Muslims prayed five times a day. So I repeated my question, “Can I have a place to pray because the Muslim prayer time has set in?” “Oh you need a place to pray? Let me bring in my idols next time and we can all have a ‘prayer party’,” she responded. I just stared at her. I didn’t know what to say.

I went outside to pray. As people walked by, I could hear them chuckling. I heard some verbal insults.

The next day, when prayer time came, I didn’t even ask my supervisor and walked to a corner in our office. If I could advocate for minorities’ rights, I could guarantee mine. My supervisor found me praying and pulled my arm. She yelled, “Get back to work!” She said it was “unprofessional” to bring religion into the work place.

I wasn’t imposing my religion on anyone. Being denied a space to pray felt reminiscent of gays who could not openly talk about their sexuality on the workplace. It was as if my supervisor was saying that I could be Muslim as long as I kept my Muslim-ness to myself. I suppose in the hierarchy of minority rights, my rights rank lower in terms of importance.”

Written by Reema Lateef

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Reema Lateef is an avid writer hailing from sunny California where she currently attends Zaytuna College. When she is not writing or editing articles, Reema spends her free time exploring the great outdoors or running.