Cross cultural awareness: Ramadan
When work colleagues are celebrating Ramadan, which this year starts today (August 1, 2011) people from other cultures can find it hard to know what the right protocol is, and are often too afraid of causing offence or showing ignorance to ask.
The ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan marks a month of fasting, refraining from food and drink during daylight hours for Muslims. The date changes every year based on a moon cycle, and it’s the biggest event on the Muslim calendar.
It has parallels with other religions, such as Yom Kippur in the Jewish religion, or Lent for Christians. For devout Muslims it is seen as obligatory and is a very spiritual time, so fasting is combined with rigorous prayer. It is a way to demonstrate self-discipline, patience and spirituality – very Muslim qualities – and a time for charitable acts.
Islam is a rich culture, with as many adaptations and as much personal practise as other religions, but despite the fasting, for most Ramadan is a time of celebration rather than one of hardship.
Muslims working in environments in which Islam is not the dominant culture will usually have learned to adapt and reconcile their religion to their working practises. Many will not ask for any special treatment, beyond requesting specific holiday, so the following five pointers are just that – pointers – to help show consideration to Muslim colleagues at what for them is a very special time of year.
Allow flexibility around meetings and calls: Muslim colleagues are juggling additional prayer calls and are expected to spend more time with their families.
2. Front load the day
At the end of the working day, devout Muslims will have had nothing to eat since the morning, and will need to get home both to eat and for family and community events – these may be families coming together to break fasts or Qur’an readings in the Mosque. Helping colleagues to leave punctually at the end of the day will reduce stress and be greatly appreciated.
3. Working lunches/coffee break meetings
Avoid working lunches for the month. As it is forbidden (with some exceptions) also to drink, even water, try and stick to straightforward meetings around a desk.
When Muslims travel they are exempt from the fast (although depending upon their interpretation of the Qur’an may have to make this up at a later stage). There are several particularly holy days, when travel other than to see relatives could cause hardship: the Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan (30th/31st August this year) and the start of the following month (massive feasting); and the Laylat al-Quadr, the most holy night of the Islamic year, which falls on different days towards the end of Ramadan but this year falls on Friday, 26 August 2011.
There are as many ways to observe Ramadan as there are Muslims. If you have Muslim colleagues with whom you have a good working relationship, the majority won’t be offended if you ask them about how they are celebrating Ramadan.
If you are a non-Muslim working within a country or organization where Islam is the dominant culture, the cues around you will probably be more evident. As a mark of respect you should be dressing modestly (whether you are male or female), respecting prayer spaces, and neither eating nor drinking in public during daylight. If you are invited to someone’s home during Ramadan, it would be rude to refuse: remember to remove your shoes upon entering and as those around you may only be eating with their right hand, follow suit. Of course, you wouldn’t bring a bottle (of alcohol) under normal circumstances, so Ramadan is no different.
At Global Integration experience has taught us that you should rarely be afraid to ask your colleagues for cultural guidance if you are unsure. Mostly, colleagues are as conscious as you are of differences and don’t not expect you to know everything. Demonstrating a willingness to learn, showing interest and consideration will almost certainly be more comfortable for everyone than being awkward and embarrassed.