By Bhairavi Thanki
Aisha Khan (a pseudonym) is a 24-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Aisha is young and ambitious, so I asked her whether she felt Toronto’s alcohol-friendly culture was a career impediment.
Bhairavi: Tell me about the drinking culture around you, from high school going into university.
Aisha: I grew up in a really ethnically and culturally diverse area at Jane and St. Clair. The only kids that really drank in high school were basically the rich white kids. It was never really an issue till later on in university. In the beginning I wouldn’t drink and I would say that it was for religious reasons. But that was kind of the monotone answer that I was almost expected and conditioned to give.
I did experiment with drinking in university. It did have something to do with fitting in that I had to try it. How do you spurn something without trying it first, right? It just didn’t appeal to me when I did do it.
BT: Was drinking an issue in university?
AK: I wouldn’t say it was a huge problem in university or in high school. It started becoming more of an issue at my first job, when I worked for a communications firm. There were only 15 of us. It was tight knit and the office had a big drinking culture. I had become more observant in my faith too, so I had more of a personal reason to refrain from it.
Whether it was taking a client out to a bar, or getting together after work for drinks, I felt like the odd person out. The firm wasn’t ethnically diverse, so I just felt like the odd person out period, let alone as someone who practiced a faith. At that time I had my own insecurities around praying in the work force, or telling people I was fasting, or how I dressed and all that stuff. In retrospect I wasn’t strong enough to say “it’s not that I just don’t drink, it’s that I don’t even want to be in a bar.” I just felt really polarized. That’s the only time I felt polarized because of drinking.
BT: Did you have a problem with friends drinking around you while you were hanging out with them?
AK: When people get tipsy is when I get uncomfortable. Not really uncomfortable, but I ask myself “should I really be here?” When there were gatherings at my first job, I would feel out of place to the point where I left events early. It felt weird to me to be the only sober person in a room full of people who were inebriated.
I didn’t want to make people who did drink feel like there was something morally wrong with them. Even now I am careful about how I describe things to people, because I don’t want it to seem like I am holier than thou. For example, when scholars in the Muslim community talk about “modest dressing,” I don’t like using that terminology when describing myself. “Modest” means different things to different people.
BT: When did you start noticing the drinking culture at your first job?
AK: Almost immediately. It was always a topic of conversation: “let’s go and grab a drink.” The account that I was working on, the client was notorious about it. He loved drinking and getting drunk. That was the first thing they ever told me about him. He always expected that our meetings would be in bars. At that point I was okay, or I thought I was okay, with it. But I just felt like the odd person out always. Not that anyone really made me feel that way, it was because I couldn’t participate. Because it was such a socially knit workplace, you couldn’t really separate the social from the professional. So I always felt like I was on the periphery.
BT: Did you ever bring it up with colleagues? Did you ever talk about it?
AK: No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel like it was an issue enough to bring up. I felt like it was something more personal to me and therefore it was not fair to bring it up with somebody. But I did feel that they could have been a little bit more culturally sensitive toward my belief and my faith.
BT: Was there an instance where you were purposely left out of a situation because you didn’t drink?
AK: No, I wouldn’t say I was purposely left out. People were always asking me to join them. I personally felt like I couldn’t be inclusive. They were social drinkers, so they would hang out after a particularly long day and at the end of the week. In the beginning, I forced myself to go because I felt like I would be harming myself professionally if I didn’t. But I would never be comfortable. I’d just keep thinking about how I want to get out of here.
BT: Did your leaving that work place have anything to do with that social aspect?
AK: It did play a role, in the sense that I wanted be in a work place where I could be myself. So that meant that I was comfortable enough to pray during the work day, that I was part of a group of people that socialized outside a bar.
BT: Do you think it’s harder for Muslim women to function in a work place that is alcohol-centric?
AK: I think so. For women, we physically wear our religion in how we dress and how we carry ourselves. If you’re wearing a hijab, it’s a greater responsibility on your shoulders. I feel like I have to be much more polite and patient. Before I wore a hijab, I’d walk into bars, but now I’d never be comfortable wearing a headscarf and walking into a bar.
At my current job, they were planning on going to a bar for our Christmas party. It took a lot of guts, but I actually emailed my boss saying “feel free if that’s what you want to do.” And he understood and they ended up changing their plans.
Don’t apologize for who you are and what your beliefs are. Frame them in a way that’s very personal so someone who’s in front of you doesn’t feel like you’re looking down on them.
BT: Do you think other Muslims face these situations on a daily basis?
AK: Sometimes my husband will go for work events for an hour or so and he will have a Coke. He isn’t always comfortable, but he understands that this is the culture that he’s in and he has to meet them half way on it.
BT: What do you think is a more sensitive way for work places to deal with that kind of an issue?
AK: It’s hard when you’re a small company, cause you’re almost like a family. I can’t speak for other Muslims, but I don’t want to be that person who always puts a kink in the plan, or that people are going out of their way to accommodate. It makes me feel even more like an outsider. I think it’s a matter of maybe once in a while going to a coffee shop, or going out for lunch or something as opposed to grabbing a drink. Making the person feel a little bit more included.
BT: Is there an open space for young Muslims to talk about alcohol and society here in Toronto?
AK: It’s still taboo to bring up issues like this. Who do you talk to to say “I am struggling with not drinking?” I found the most support in other Muslim females, especially those who were starting to become more observant and who were struggling in the same way I was. There are tons of resources, scholars and imams that are open, if we look outside of our parents’ circles.
I think what people don’t realize is that there are levels of prohibition and levels of sin. Drinking is not that up there compared to a lot of other things. I am not saying that you should do it if you’re a practicing Muslim, but you have to go easy on yourself.
Bhairavi Thanki is a copywriter, video editor and occasional blogger living in downtown Toronto. The only thing she hates more than bad puns is how much she loves them.