Guide for Interacting with Muslim Women in Professional Environment?
September 17, 2018 11:18 AM   Subscribe

I am very comfortable traveling in the Muslim world (have lived in South Asia for several years). However, I am now in the position of organizing a professional exchange, whereby an Indonesian policymaker (a Muslim woman) will be spending two months at a U.S. organization doing a job-shadowing experience in a very specific scientific field. The organization has asked if I have any guides they could pass out to their staff on "do's and don'ts" for interacting with relatively conservative Muslim women. Any ideas?

The visitor in question is Indonesian, mid-30's, wears a hijab. I've met her and she is relatively conservative, but also well aware that she will be working with people of different (or no) faiths. She works with non-Muslim men in her office and doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would be overly bothered if someone made a social mistake that would fine in the U.S. but frowned upon in Indonesia.

That said, the leader of the American host organization (a conservation-based org), wants to educate his staff in order to avoid any major faux pas or awkward interactions. I can give some tips off the top of my head based on my own experiences, but I keep wondering if I'm missing anything.

To be clear, they're not afraid of being around her, but they are keenly interested in being culturally sensitive. They asked if I have any sort of guidance they could pass around to their staff, especially some field staff that may have limited or no experience interacting with foreigners, Muslims, or both.

While I trust the senior staff to use Google for much of this, they want to make sure junior staff are prepared as well.

I would appreciate any links to guides (anything Indonesia-specific a plus!), particularly anything that highlights some of the context behind certain practices/norms.
posted by GorgeousPorridge to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think I would ask her what you/staff can do to make her feel as comfortable as possible in a culturally "alien/different" workplace. As with many religions/cultures individuals may have their own preference. Also, you might ask her if there are any issues you can answer for her--One could assume some uncertainty existsfrom both perspectives.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:25 AM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you're familiar with south east asian culture, there's nothing we could tell you that would add to your knowledge. Muslim women aren't, like, aliens! :) I guess you could ask the staff to be inclusive, try not to serve pork - or even non-halal meat - if they invite her to their home, that sort of thing?
posted by MiraK at 11:29 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is there any reason why you can't ask her? There's a huge variation in religious practices within Islam. It would be counterproductive for you to tell everyone something general (such as not shaking hands with men, fasting during Ramadan, praying daily), and then have her have to correct you because she does something different.
posted by oryelle at 11:38 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sorry to threadsit. I'm thinking of things like "it's generally not accepted to offer a handshake to a Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first." Basic stuff like that.

My problem is that this information needs to filter down to folks I'll never meet, many of whom have never interacted and really honestly might not be familiar with the halal diet, etc. Really basic stuff.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 11:39 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

And it's difficult to ask her because she is on a remote detail in Indonesian island territories between now and then.

Done threadsitting.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 11:40 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Passing out a guide seems a bit over-the-top, she's just a person not a time traveler. Perhaps you could just email her future line manager a couple of things to be aware of? As an American who works a lot in Indonesia, the main thing to be aware of is that she may wish to pray during the day- is there a room available for that in/near your building, or will she have her own office? It's not a big deal but she might for example disappear for 15 minutes after lunch for prayers. If her visit overlaps with Ramadan that's good to be aware of- she will likely be fasting (so maybe avoid lunch meetings) and people tend to work slightly shorter days. Also no pork-only work events or hugging from male coworkers (which should be the norm for any workplace anyhow). Most professional Indonesians I know have traveled a lot and are perfectly comfortable in non-Muslim settings. As long as her new colleagues are welcoming and professional, I'm sure everything will be fine.
posted by emd3737 at 11:47 AM on September 17, 2018 [13 favorites]

Culture Smart has a guide for Indonesia
posted by brujita at 11:52 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe something like this as an Islam 101.

It might be nice to send out a basic guide to Indonesia to staff to facilitate conversation. I know that I would feel more welcome if people could find my country on a map and knew the basics about language and geography.
posted by oryelle at 12:04 PM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

As a South Asian woman from a Muslim background, let me gently say: please don’t. Have you heard the term “the soft bigotry of low expectations”? That’s what this feels like. This woman is perfectly capable of expressing her own needs. Handing out “guidance” ahead of her visit feels insulting and unnecessary. Not to mention, it’s painting with a very wide brush. As mentioned above, there’s a huge variation in behavior among people of all religions and no one here has any idea how this woman chooses to follow her religion. You may very well insult her by NOT offering to shake her hand. Even “really basic stuff” like “halal diet” means different things to different Muslims. Some are very strict, some avoid only pork, some eat everything. You just DON’T KNOW.

If the org insists on providing guidance, it should be of the general type and applicable to any guest coming into the company: be sensitive to dietary restrictions, differences in dress, language miscommunications etc.
posted by yawper at 12:09 PM on September 17, 2018 [90 favorites]

I think what you're doing is well intentioned but it's also narrow-minded. I agree with what yawper said above. Most likely she will be expecting ppl to interact with her as they interact with others in this work environment at it should be because she is in a different country.

Reading about Islam, while good to do, will not make you understand an individual Muslim person anymore than reading about Christianity will teach you about how Christians think and behave on an individual level.

Instead, your workplace should be generally training ppl to be inclusive to all ppl and something like this training would be a start.
posted by jj's.mama at 5:22 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Though I agree with yawper that a guide is too much, I do think that a quick general email explaining like... what halal is, try to have vegetarian options at events just in case, yes they do have TV and social media there so don't act super surprised about that, etc. wouldn't be unwarranted. The woman in question is used to working in different cultural contexts so there shouldn't be any problems; however, you should still email her and ask if she needs any accommodations set up because that's something the program should handle.

If you think the company's level of cultural competency is low enough that people are going to go up to her and start touching her headscarf or talking about 90 virgins or bacon-greased bullets you might want to offer as the program organizer to answer everyone's stupid yet somehow urgent questions about the Muslim faith so she isn't pulled into teaching Cultures Are Different 101 when she's really just there to work. If people at the company are generally aware of how not to be rude then it should all be fine.
posted by storytam at 8:26 PM on September 17, 2018

The organization has asked if I have any guides they could pass out to their staff on "do's and don'ts" for interacting with relatively conservative Muslim women. Any ideas?

The most direct answer to the question you have been asked is this:



You do not have (and do not need to compile!) a special guide to politely interacting with people who practice a different religion and/or were raised in a different country from you, Muslim or no. I would advice you to very nicely advise staff to just be, uh, regular polite? Like, don't bring up religion, don't bring up being SO DIFFERENT IN CULTURE, don't assume a giant difference at all.
posted by desuetude at 10:48 PM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

Not a direct answer, but a series of shorts worth watching: The Secret Life of Muslims. Could be worth casually sharing about the office, among other forms of education.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 11:26 PM on September 17, 2018

Sorry to threadsit. I'm thinking of things like "it's generally not accepted to offer a handshake to a Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first." Basic stuff like that.

are you thinking of the generic guide-reader as a man, or is this an all-male organization she's coming to? If this sample guideline were correct, two courteous Muslim women would be unable to ever shake hands, even if they both wanted to and both came from a place/culture where handshaking was the norm.

if the org includes both men and women, you will want to be exceedingly careful in offering different interaction instructions to different genders, and exceedingly wary of hanging the blame for that sexist instruction on someone who didn't ask for it and knows nothing about it. careful as in don't do it.

Also, it's a safe bet that the org knows the nationality of all its employees, but avoid any language that assumes no one listening is herself Muslim. Don't trust that their boss would necessarily know if they were or weren't.

A little extra courtesy, tact, and respect for personal space will allow her to gracefully deflect any overtures or questions she is uncomfortable with, either culturally or just personally. this is true for guests of any religion.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:57 PM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Like, don't bring up religion, don't bring up being SO DIFFERENT IN CULTURE, don't assume a giant difference at all.

I get where this sentiment is coming from, but don’t go to the extreme of treating her like a 40 year old white male American either. Ignoring cultural differences entirely is also a micro-aggression. Treat her as an individual, be authentic, and proactively reach out to her for status updates to smooth over any faux pas from the Americans. I interact with a lot of Muslim women, from strict fundamentalist to free-wheeling, Burka to bikini, from all parts of the globe, and I can’t think of any generic advice specific to Muslim women. The “best answer” link wouldn’t entirely apply to any of the hundreds of women I know. They are as varied as the white men I also interact with.
posted by saucysault at 6:58 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

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