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I'm sitting in a cubicle farm. The minutes are ticking away and time is quickly running out. If I don't do it now, I'll miss my chance. I could just ask somebody. But I'm new here and barely know anyone.
Shifty-eyed, I assess my surroundings to gauge the possibility of getting caught, contemplating the backlash that potentially awaits me. Finally, internal debate gives way to desperation and I just go for it.
I crawl under my desk and create a makeshift barricade with a trash bin and desk chair to block myself from view as much as possible. I hope to God no one comes by to ask me where we're at on that brand statement. I pull my scarf over my head, and hastily offer my afternoon prayers.
The struggle to find a prayer space at work is familiar to many Muslim-Americans, but it's magnified even more in creative fields like fashion.
The requirements for Muslim prayers aren't burdensome. A clean space and five or ten minutes are all you need. There are five daily prayers and depending on daylight savings, one to three of them fall squarely within the confines of the 9-to-5 work day.
Solitary prayers are a keenly personal act. They require focus, concentration and detachment from the hustle and bustle of life as you silently recite Quranic passages to yourself. In this respect, the divine communication is no different from meditating, practicing yoga, or taking a quiet mental break. All are meant to renew your spirit and take your mind off of everyday minutiae.
Muslim prayers also involve certain movements like standing, bowing and prostrating—which is where things get tricky. It's not exactly something you can do incognito. Nothing is more clumsily awkward than a coworker finding you mid-prayer. The whole experience is akin to having someone unwittingly walk in to a bathroom stall you're currently using. There's lots of apologizing on both sides, avoidance of eye contact and pretending afterward that the whole thing never happened.
The struggle to find a prayer space at work is familiar to many Muslim-Americans, but it's magnified even more in creative fields like fashion, where typically few Muslims end up. As a "creative type" who has worked at several fashion brands, I've almost always been the lone Muslim employee.
Consequently, I've developed the special ability to ferret out secluded nooks and crannies for prayer at work. I've found office gyms with changing rooms are usually the best bet for privacy and low risk of intrusion. Sometimes I'll pray in my car as a last resort, though it's tough getting spiritual in a metal can that's been baking in the Southern California heat, especially when your coworkers are pulling up to the spot next to you, fresh off a Starbucks run.
Of course, the glaringly obvious solution here is to simply tell my coworkers my secret: I am, in fact, a card-carrying Muslim-American and I try my best to observe daily prayers.
But that brings in a host of potential complications. Like so many millions of Muslim women around the world, my version of modesty does not include donning the hijab, the headscarf that anyone with a cable news subscription will recognize as a "marker" of Muslim-ness, albeit an arbitrary one. Not visually standing out in this way actually makes it that much more difficult to bring up the "Muslim conversation" and the related "prayer conversation." Without the visual reference, I'm simply an ethnic-looking person who seems to have assimilated into modern Western society completely, given my proficiency in non-accented English and ability to discuss the finer points of the Real Housewives franchise. Unless I volunteer that I am, in fact, Muslim, I can pass.
Unfortunately for me, the last thing Muslims are perceived as is arbiters of cool.
Adding to all of this is the fact that I've been working in marketing and fashion since I graduated college. These industries thrive on what's au courant, trending, and viral. Somehow, a 1400-year-old tradition of daily prayer doesn't fit in with that sort of ethos. Sometimes appearing outwardly religious at work can be a turnoff, like you're out of touch with the times. Sometimes, you're afraid that asking for allowances for religious reasons might make you appear like a slacker asking for extra breaks. And sometimes you really just don't want to become the go-to girl for questions on ISIS. Because, honestly? I don't have any more answers than you do.
This paranoia does not come from nowhere. The worry that you might be seen as someone foreign and weird is one that any second-generation kid born and brought up in America lives with. But for Muslim-Americans that fear is compounded by the way Islam is wildly misconstrued in the media as a backward and oppressive religion that needs to be brought into the 21st century. Unfortunately for me, the last thing Muslims are perceived as is arbiters of cool.
So I resolve to keep that part of myself out of the office because I've found that matters of religion, especially those pertaining to Islam, can make others feel uncomfortable. I don't want my coworkers to feel they need to handle me with kid gloves for fear of coming off as culturally insensitive. I want to be able to joke, jive and have a rapport with them. Some of the most creative ideas I've had were borne from those kinds of team relationships.
I just want them to think I'm normal.
But that afternoon, cowering under my desk to pray, I realize something: My faith is so deeply intertwined with my identity that I can't compartmentalize it out of myself at work. And pre-emptively judging my new colleagues, assuming they're too narrow-minded to understand, is unwarranted on my part.
My faith is so deeply intertwined with my identity that I can't compartmentalize it out of myself at work.
The next day, I gather up my courage and walk over to my manager. I imagine her giving me a look of sheer bewilderment as I reveal this deep dark secret about who I really am. I picture her discussing this moment with girlfriends in a hushed tone over drinks. I hesitate for a few seconds, stumbling over how to frame the question, before sputtering out my request.
"Sure, there's a conference room," she says without a hint of surprise or shock, before directing me to the holy grail of secret prayer spots: a room, tucked away in a deserted hallway, with no windows and a door that locks. I'm flooded with relief and thank her profusely.
"All you had to do was ask," she nonchalantly responds, as if it were no big deal.
Because, in fact, it is not a big deal.
It's been a over a year since our conversation, and revealing that part of me has made being at work exponentially more comfortable. Connecting with colleagues actually became easier once I no longer had worry about "outing" myself.
I'm fortunate in that way-not every workplace is so accommodating. I still don't know whether my circumstance is a function of overwhelming understanding on the part of my colleagues, or that the fashion industry, for all its diversity issues, generally respects individuality. But all you can do is present the most authentic version of yourself, no matter how many kooky misconceptions are floating around in the world, and hope that people don't judge you. Or even better, that they just shrug it off, because they were never going to judge you in the first place.