Thursday 24 November 2016

Lacking Confidence as a Muslimah at Work

I recently asked colleagues for some 360 degree feedback. This involves my work peers rating me on a number of competencies such as leadership, team working and effective communication, alongside some feedback on what they think I do well and what I could do better. I got some really useful feedback from colleagues, but one person’s assessment really stood out. She mentioned lots of good qualities but suggested they were hidden because I came across as lacking in confidence and holding back in meetings and in front of managers. Her words rang true and it was painful to have a light held up to the flaws that have been plaguing me.

Over the last year I have been thinking a lot about what I want my next step to be at work. But whatever career path I think about, the same issues come up. I have guilt about leaving home to work in an environment with mixed genders. I have a number of friends that wear niqab and stay at home and disapprove of Muslim women working, I think over time, their stance and the things they say has affected me more deeply than I care to admit, with a lot of guilt and anxiety resulting from this. 

I hate expending the energy that goes into trying to avoid shaking hands with men, trying to sit away from men, trying to go to a different site and decline a lift with a male manager or colleague (I always insist I will meet them there and take the train). I struggle with the effort of making wudhu at work and the worry when I have meetings through prayer time and I have to try and find time to get away and pray. 

These things have made me think long and hard about work. How can you strive to do well, when deep down you have doubts about whether you should even be there or whether you should be wearing niqab to be there? How can you network and speak up in meetings confidently when you spend time avoiding handshakes and physical contact and even end up hiding behind your monitor every time a manager comes by?

I decided a long time ago I would not chase money and make do with what I earn. I would try to do work that adds value in some way rather than chase promotions for financial gain. But I found over time, that the sense of ambition never went away. If I want to do something, I want to do it as well as I can. 

After months off anxiety and guilt building up, the feedback from my colleague, really brought all of these things to the fore for me and sent me into a tailspin all day. As always, writing has been the best way to deal with the anxiety and I have been emptying my mind of all of my thoughts into my journal to review. Some truths have been inescapable:

Staying at home would mean more time and concentration for ibadah (worship) – and isn’t that our purpose in this life?

Staying at home would mean a more measured and slower day and less exhaustion.

Staying at home would mean more time for myself and to do things I enjoy.

Not working would mean a massive struggle for us financially in the short term. I believe that many of the sisters who stay at home manage to get by because they claim benefits from the government or are provided with housing or housing benefits. I don’t think many of them are eligible, either because they are able to work or their husbands are working but not declaring it. Which is the bigger sin – benefit fraud or going to work and not wearing niqab?

Working means I have money to contribute towards the household bills and my daughter’s Islamic education. I have money to help others and my parents if the need arises.

I am fully aware that money is not the whole story. When I reduced my hours from five days to four days, it was still enough to make do. I believe that Allah (SWT) provides in one way or another. Perhaps I could leave work and my husband’s business would grow to fill the financial gap.

My fear is that I will step away one day and look back over the years and think, why did I not do that sooner? Why did I waste all those years doing something that does not fulfil our purpose for being here or took up my time and stopped me from reaching out to fulfil another dream?

What If I stop working and feel directionless and bored? If it turns out to be a mistake, how easy would it be to start again?

Is this just a first world problem being blown out of proportion? My mum worked from home as a seamstress doing piece-work for factories. This required long hours on low pay and led to her developing arthritis in her hands. In her view, it is much better to go to work in an office, sit down and do work that uses your mind and get paid properly or it. Both she and my mother-in-law value the independence and choices that your own income can bring and have known what it is to not be able to make ends meet.

How do I reconcile prayer and work so that I can do the first but also do justice to the latter?

All of these questions have been on my mind for a long time. Writing them down made them easier to try and look at objectively. I want to work, but I want to do something that adds value and helps others. I want to gain some expertise in one area, such as health, women or minorities and become an expert on them – when I know what I am talking about I feel confident and speak up comfortably.

I will try to work flexibly, so that I can do more prayers at home.

I want to help my husband develop his business, once our home refurbishment is done he has some ideas to diversify his business that we are really excited about. That will give me leeway to reduce my hours further if I choose to.

Truth be told, I have been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted on some days recently. Cooking and cleaning up after builders after an intense day at work, helping kids with homework and keeping the babies occupied. Listening to my six beloveds (hubby and the kids) tell me about their day as they need to process or share everything that has happened to them that day. At the end of some days I have asked myself if I was foolish for trying to do everything and being left shattered, when there are some women that sit at home all day and get their bills paid for them by their husband or the government or both.

Setting things down on paper and thinking them through has helped me find a little clarity. Now to try and understand how I can get from where I am to where I need to be.

I would sincerely love to hear from sisters about their experiences in this regard, whether working, staying at home or transitioning between the two.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Wudhu Bag for Work

As we move into the shorter days of winter, quite a few of my daily prayers are starting to fall during my work day (midday, late afternoon and soon the evening prayer too).  This means I have to make ablutions for prayers at work.  I have always struggled with washing up for prayers at work. Taking my scarf and hijab cap off, taking my shoes and stockings off, making sure there is no trace of lipstick.  This is coupled with sometimes struggling to find a quiet place to make wudhu without an audience watching you stick your foot into the sink and wondering what on earth you are doing (if that reference makes no sense, there is a video showing the Muslim ablution here).

At the moment I am using one of the disabled toilets which affords me some privacy, but is usually a mess with wet floors, hair and dirty tissues on the floor and usually a filthy toilet.  I usually give the place a quick wipe down before I use it, but I still have to put tissues on the floor, wipe it down afterwards and find more tissue to clean myself off.

My office is trying to save money and go green so the the building has removed all hand tissues or napkins and replaced with dryers.  Which means I have to find paper towels and keep them in my bag.

So last weekend I had a think about what could make it a bit easier for me to make wudhu at work.  I came up with this wudhu bag:

The main components are a waterproof makeup or wash bag, two lots of small towels which I picked up very cheaply.  The darker colour is to put on the floor and the lighter colour ones for me to dry off with.  I take one of each every day and then when I get home drop the used towels into the wash and put two more in my little bag.

I also added deodorant and make-up remover.  You can add panty liners and a small bottle to make istinjah (ablutions after toilet), such as a roll-up type bottle that you can open up to fill, then empty an roll up again (like this one here). 

I have been using my little wudhu bag all last week and have found it such a big help to have everything in one place and have the towels to hand.  I like that rather than throw paper towels away, I can wash and use the same batch over and over again.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Dealing with Bullying

When Little Man started secondary school, I was worried that he would be an easy target for bullies. He is gentle natured, friendly and likes to tell stories. His school is very big with children from a very mixed catchment area. It was my old secondary school and I remember how rough it was at that time, although much less so now. Alhamdulillah his friendly and easy going nature helped him settle in to his school. He knew some of the older boys from our local masjid and has been joining them to pray at school.

In fretting about Little Man starting school, I missed completely what was going on under my nose. Gorgeous had been less than his usual sunshine-y self in recent days. I put this down to his growing up a little and becoming quicker to answer back and argue. I found him becoming sullen at times and angry at others. 

It is my habit to check in with the children to ask how their day was, what they had eaten and what they had been doing. When my older children were little, they would happily tell me about their day. As they have gotten older they have become less forthcoming. It takes longer for them to open up and they need space and silent company from me to start talking. Over time, I have learned to ask and then wait with patience for them to loosen up and make their complaints or share their exploits that day.

Gorgeous is no exception, except he is quicker to tell you what he is thinking or feeling. If you haven’t got round to asking, he will let you know by declaring that clearly no one cares about what happens to him. Then on asking, will vent about how horrible his teacher, the boys who are not his friends and all the girls in his class are.

Over the last few weeks, I reacted in the change in his behaviour by reminding him that I expect him to treat me with respect and asking him to behave kindly to his siblings. During this time there were a few high profile cases in the news where children had been bullied, including one particularly devastating incident that we discussed and which particularly seemed to stay with Gorgeous and which he kept coming back to.

It was only a few weeks ago when I picked up from school and saw him looking utterly miserable instead of his usual chirpy self that I asked him what was wrong. After much prompting, he told me one of the boys in his class had been beating him up. I was taken aback and approached the cover teacher who was in charge. Both she and the classroom assistant were very clear that this couldn’t have happened as the child in question had sat next to them all afternoon. I would have been stumped had a boy in the class not piped up that he had seen the child earlier in the day kick Gorgeous and punch him in the face twice.

The supply teacher said she would mention the incident to Gorgeous’ normal teacher. I took the classroom assistant aside and told her about the change I had seen in Gorgeous and that I was unhappy that this hadn’t been caught. The classroom assistant told me that she had noticed Gorgeous moping and dragging his feet in the classroom. She had told him he should improve his attitude or she would complain to his mum.

On the way home, I gave Gorgeous a hug and told him that we would sort out his problem and that he should let me know the instant that anyone bothers him. The bullying had been going on since the end of the previous year. I remember telling the teacher a boy had hit him and he told me that it stopped after that, but after the holidays it had started up again this year.

The following week I met with Gorgeous’ teacher and talked the situation through. He had met with the headteacher to work out how they could manage the other child’s behaviour. He indicated that the child was an abused child and they were working with the appropriate agencies to help him. I advised that I believe in being understanding and compassionate to those that had suffered, but that Gorgeous could not go into school to be hit every day. He had to agree with that.

In the intervening time there have been a few incidents with the boy, but I have seen him come back to his cheeky, lively self. A few things stand out from this experience. I was so focussed on Little Man who was dealing with the bigger change, I didn’t expect that Gorgeous, one of the biggest, loudest kids in his class could be a target, I could have been more open-minded. 

The other is that I assumed the changes in him were due to his getting older. I realise now that his fundamental nature is upbeat and extrovert. I think in future I might be more sensitive to any departure from his usual self, rather than assume that he is growing out of his usual nature.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Working Muslim Mama: Deciding How Much Energy to Dedicate to Work

I have always been of the belief that being a working mother does not make you any less competent or capable of handling complex and high profile work, nor of handling work that puts you under intense pressure. That sounds like an obvious thing to say but I think working mothers are sometimes considered as not being able to commit to the same level as everyone else due to their children, or that they are conflicted or distracted in some way due to their responsibilities.

When I worked in the Civil Service I was suggested as a candidate for their fast track programme for graduates called the Fast Stream. At the time Little Lady was very little and I decided that the scheme might mean travelling and long hours and I was not willing to commit to this if it meant less time with my little one. One of my colleagues, also a young mum of one, questioned why she had also not been suggested for the scheme and the manager foolishly suggested that it was because she was a single mother – you can imagine the storm that created. But it made me realise that when managers saw you as a mother, they assumed you could not commit or were not able in some way – before you even got the chance to assess whether this was true for you or not.

The last two year as a mum of five children, including my crazy baby, who really does seem to have unlimited energy mash’Allah, have been a major reality check for me. I have had to assess what I can realistically do with the 24 hours I have, without going crazy or falling apart from exhaustion. I have had to give up lots of things whilst trying to retain a little something outside of work and homemaking that feels like it is for myself (being able to write for instance).

I have always operated from the position that if you are taking time away from your children because you have to work, then you might as spend that time doing good, valuable work, rather than just counting down the hours till you leave. I felt that the length of time away from home is the same regardless of what you do, so why not take on the responsibility and complexity rather than an easier option that feels less taxing. But this mind-set did not take into account the fact that work takes energy and focus as well as time. I didn’t think of this before because I always felt like I had unlimited energy and the work was rarely taxing or fast-paced enough to challenge that.

What I have found as I have moved towards doing work that is more pressured is that there is a cost in terms of the energy and focus that you have left for other things. I used to go home from work, get the house work and dinner done and spend time blogging or making cards or jewellery. My brain needed more stimulation. My work at the moment, delivering projects as part of an organisation wide transformation programme, is intense and fast-paced, I have to keep multiple workstreams going and not miss or forget anything. I very often find myself trying to work out how to do something I have never done before. I am also on a learning curve which means I am constantly taking in information, assessing it and trying to understand how to apply it. This means I am no longer bored or under-stimulated. What I had never realised in the past is that mental activity is physically taxing (the Scientific American says that the brain uses up to 20% of the bodies energy). When you work that intensely you go home many days exhausted with a need to wind down and switch off.

Often you will find out that when you get home, this is the last thing your children and partner need. They want to share their day, to vent, to plan for the evening. Often they need your help to process what has happened to them during the day or to wind down as well. I recall there was a time when my mum-in-law spent the summer with us and was quite depressed. I would come home from work every day and spend time sitting with and trying to cheer her up and get her to share what was bothering her. I had the energy to do it then, I don’t know if I would manage that now.

My family demand my full focus in the time that we are together and my heart tells me that they deserve it more than my work does. This means that I am having to learn to manage my energy a bit better through the day. Thing that help include eating healthy food that is not so heavy that it makes me sleepy in the afternoon or taking a proper lunch and getting outside to walk or meet with colleagues who provide good company. I am trying to be honest and say when the work is too much, although this is something I struggle with. I am trying to set boundaries so that I stop work at 4pm and leave without feeling guilty. I try to use the commute to wind down and leave work behind, by reading or making a simple dhikr slowly. Then there is my frenemy – the power nap, I find it helps massively if I can get my head down when I get home for 20-30 minutes, any longer and I am groggy for hours afterwards.

The big question though really is whether we need to take on less at work and delaying doing anything that is very intense until the children are older. I am a definite believer that we cannot have it all – work, home, children, social life, me-time and spiritual and that if we try to, we do it half-heartedly, in a rushed way without any quality to it all. Or worse still we make ourselves ill and miserable. So is the answer to hold back in our working life and take the quiet, slow road that doesn’t demand too much of us? I felt like I have done that to some extent for 10 years and with the babies being little, it seems it will be the case for at least another 10 years, will the time for career have passed? Even then, now that my oldest is a teen and the boys are older, I don’t find that they need me less, but just as much or more, only in a different way (less wiping snot, more being present while they tell you why they are having a rough day).

I don’t feel I have the answer yet, my thinking now is less about work and more about quality of life and balance. My legacy will not be the job I do, but the way I raised my children, any good deeds I did and whatever area of work becomes my “life’s work” – whether academic or community-based.

With this in mind, I don’t plan to go full speed at work and burn out at the expense of my family, but to try and be measured, learn as much as I can as I go and continue to be selective about the opportunities that come up for now.