Chills passed through my body like a wave when I heard my first grade teacher ask the question, “is anyone in here Muslim?” I reached my hand out and purposely dropped my pen to the ground to avoid having to raise my hand and identify myself as the only Muslim in class. Growing up in the US in the post 9/11 era, I never felt comfortable with who I was. As a Libyan and Muslim American, I felt that I needed to hide part of my identity to be fully accepted and to feel safe. In Elementary School all I wanted was to fit in. With my blue eyes, light brown curly hair, light skin, and soccer nickname “Amy,” I was doing a heck of a good job of it too. If my mother ever spoke to me in Arabic in public, my face would redden and I would nervously respond in English. During Ramadan when I would fast, I would bring an empty lunchbox to school and sit in the cafeteria so no one would notice that I wasn’t eating. When my mother returned from Hajj wearing the Hijab, I cried my eyes out.
Looking back at my behavior in grade school now as a recent college graduate, I am beyond saddened by how distant I was from my own identity. In both Elementary and Middle School, I felt I was living a double life. Acting like I was nothing but American at school, while being culturally Arab at home and practicing my religion quietly but consistently on a daily basis. When I moved to Libya freshman year of highschool for two years, however; everything changed and I gained a new appreciation for my culture. I no longer felt the need to hide who I was. In fact, I finally felt comfortable enough to publically and fully integrate both my culture and religion into my everyday life upon my return to the US.
So what is it like to integrate your Muslim faith with your American culture while in high school, college, and in the workplace?
Well for starters, there are a lot of challenges you’re going to face. For example, many social events will revolve around drinking alcohol. Boys may ask you out and wonder why you keep saying no. No one around you will understand why you’re acting like an irritated investment banker who hasn’t slept in weeks while you’re fasting. And people will constantly wonder why you dare not eat pork. Not to mention the awkwardness that may occur when someone walks in on you making wudu in the bathroom or praying in a random empty room you found.
Although the challenges are a plenty, there are strategies to overcome each obstacle:
Tip #1: Get a non-drinking buddy
I’m not one to say whether it’s permissible or not to attend events where alcohol is present. But if you do find yourself at these events, there are ways to make them more tolerable for yourself. Having someone else who is sober with you will make the experience much less awkward and painful. If you are the only one not drinking at a work event you could feel pretty uncomfortable, but if you have a buddy - then you guys can look out for eachother, hang out, and even decide to leave early as needed. If you do not want to attend any events where alcohol is being served, keep in mind there are many other social events both for school and work that you can attend to make friends and network - you just need to be proactive and find them or even initiate them yourself.
Tip #2: Find convenient prayer spots
At work and school there are usually designated rooms where you can go pray. However, sometimes that room is far away and you don’t have time to walk to that part of campus or to that floor of your office building. In college, I actually found a locker room in the building that I had most of my classes in and within that locker room there were changing rooms where you could lock the door - this became my go-to prayer spot for when I didn't have time between classes to walk to the Musallah. At work, we have small conference rooms all around my floor so I just grab one of those rooms for prayers. If you’re a hijabi then you’re always ready to pray which is awesome, but if you are not, like myself, then I recommend always keeping prayer clothes and a Hijab in a drawer at your desk at work. To be honest, praying at work/school isn't the hard part. The real challenge is explaining prayer to others when they ask. Today, it sometimes seems like most people aren't that religious, so people are pretty surprised when they find out you pray 5 times a day. It can get awkward explaining this concept to people who are skeptical about religion in general, but as long as you are open to answering questions when they come up, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the respect people will have for you for being so dedicated and disciplined.
Tip #3: Fasting - Create a routine specifically for Ramadan
So many people just jump into Ramadan with no preparation, but there are ways to make fasting while working or going to school easier. First of all, if you are a heavy coffee drinker, stop drinking caffeine a couple of weeks before Ramadan starts. This will give your body a chance to adjust while you can still eat food and drink water to give yourself energy. Secondly, if possible, create a plan for work or school to make sure your schedule works for a fasting person. For example, I was able to make sure I got all my work done by 4pm so I could leave and have time for a nap before Iftar. You also want to organize your workout schedule. I recommend eating light during Iftar, going to Taraweeh, working out, then coming back for a post workout meal. It’s not easy, but you also don’t want to go a whole month without working out if that’s usually part of your routine.
Muslimah Society Founder & CEO