On the Job with CAIR civil rights director Saly Abd Alla

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH
  • Updated: June 5, 2013 - 9:15 AM
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saly abd alla: “We’re not even to the glass ceiling yet.”

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Saly Abd Alla grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs. Because she had been born in Egypt, she said, “People asked about camels all the time. Camels are very rare in Egypt. Historically, Egyptians used horses. The camels in front of the pyramids are for tourists.”

As the Civil Rights Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota (CAIR-MN), Abd Alla is still educating and helping others overcome stereotypes about Muslim-Americans. Now, her audience is employers, service providers and educators. Among the things CAIR-MN wants employers and others to know:

• Muslim religious practices are protected by the First Amendment, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and state law.

• Required practices for Muslims that often come up in the workplace include celebrating Eid twice a year, fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, praying five times a day, attending congregational worship at noontime on Friday and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime.

• Islam values modesty in both dress and behavior. For men, this may include a beard and head cap. For women, it includes nonrevealing clothing that covers all of the body except face and hands.

• The Muslim diet prohibits consumption of pork, pork byproducts and alcohol.

As Minnesota’s only Muslim civil rights organization, CAIR-MN works with employers accommodate religious practices. Most often, Abd Alla said, the issues involve daily prayer and the hijab, or head covering. “Muslims can pray anywhere that is clean. Office employees who have their own cubicle don’t need permission to step away. Factory workers need to step out of line and find a lead to take their place while they perform the ablution ritual, pray and return. It takes about 15 minutes,” she said. The hijab can also be a safety issue for factory workers, police officers or health care workers. In that case, there can be creative solutions, such as replacing the hijab with a cap or tucking it into a shirt.

While some employers are happy to provide accommodation once the issues are explained, others remain convinced that a secular workplace can bar religious practices. In those cases, CAIR-MN has to prove otherwise. “The Muslim community is struggling for equal pay. We’re not even to the glass ceiling yet,” Abd Alla said.

What kinds of discrimination do you see against Muslim workers?

Some employers are paying Somalis less for the same work. They’re not promoted, or they’re paid less. The employer says it’s because they are less skilled, but the workers say they are training in new workers who are being paid more.

Is it hard to prove that discrimination is based on religion?

Sometimes workers are fired for weird reasons, and we have to ask, “Are you firing them for their beliefs?” One worker asked for the holidays off, then starting getting written up for all kinds of things, so they could make a case for dismissing him.

What else should employers know about Muslim culture?

If there’s a vegetarian option, Muslims won’t complain if pork or beer-battered shrimp and fish are served at a company function. If the weekly group meetings are held at a bar, some Muslims won’t attend. They’re just uncomfortable participating in activities that encourage other people to drink. If you have questions, it doesn’t hurt to ask. It honestly starts with good conversation. People are afraid to offend, but it can be done politely. CAIR-MN offers diversity training that gets good reviews. Our website is www.cairmn.com.

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