I’ve always done what I was supposed to do, I worked hard at school, completed my undergraduate, followed by my masters and started working straight after. I followed this imaginary life itinerary, I had a timeline, and I had a concrete perception of what achievement looked like. By the time I was in a full-time job I had ticked most the boxes written out for me by society – and all I kept asking myself was ‘is this it?’
No one prepares you for the dissatisfaction when you come straight out of university. We are told to chase stable jobs, whether or not we feel fulfilled. We are told to brush off every day micro-aggressions and racism because they are part of life, to always be professional, show less emotion (especially if you are a woman). We are told to fit in. Now, let’s get one thing straight, when you’re a woman of colour, and/or a visibly Muslim woman, you’re not going to fit into the image built by a system that wasn’t built to benefit or cater to you – but that’s when we shine.
I am pretty happy I don’t fit that mould. I wore hijab a couple months into my master’s degree. I had spent my life being a little brown, but for all other purposes I did not experience the levels of racism and Islamaphobia that dark skinned and/or visibly Muslim girls face growing up. I made the conscious decision to look a little different, and almost immediately saw how people’s reactions towards me changed. I wore hijab because of the purest form of love I have for my creator, the best decision I ever made. Being different at work and in public has meant that I have had strange (and sometimes hilarious) questions asked daily. With my personal life choices often up for debate in professional and social settings. It’s reaffirmed that I am who I am, and I’m proud of me – a level of self-confidence we often deny ourselves. Be different, and be proud of it.
I had no idea what was going to happen when I started wearing hijab, but I knew it would be alright – and that has pretty much been my life mantra since. The truth is people are going to ask questions no matter what you do, so you might as well do what you like. It’s easy to get caught up in the way your life should be, follow a certain career path or even let your job define you. It’s important to remember you are a human being with interests and passions, and options, and you can do everything. This was something I struggled with.
I remember listening to a talk by poetess Sarah Kay, where she tells the story of when she was younger she thought she would be everything she wanted to be – an astronaut ballerina. Not one or the other, both. I realised listening to this, this is what I was struggling with. Why couldn’t I be everything and anything I wanted to be at the same time? Why couldn’t I be an astronaut ballerina? Why do we have to pick one career? Have you ever thought of the emotional stress we are put under at the age of 18 to pick a career path that is then used to define us for the rest of your life? I realised I was trying to force this imaginary life itinerary written by societal expectations. What happens if I just let it go, take one step at a time and do what I want?
For me it looked like this;
I studied what I loved, I studied the world and how political systems work – international relations. I studied what I was interested in– how companies function, how public opinion is shaped by multinational corporations – I studied International Business. I bought the two together – examining how business could manage the refugee crisis. I did what brought me joy – I spent time with the people I loved, we sang and danced. I shed what was making me unhappy – I quit my job. I decided to move back in with my family – I moved to the UAE. I applied for jobs, which would let me develop who I was personally and professionally – I found a new job. Most importantly, I prayed for better and to be better – which led to my family and I completing Hajj earlier this year.
The truth is, as Muslim women we need to let go of societal expectations we will never be able to live up to, do what interests you, and be the best at it.
I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ve never been prouder to say it.
Blog by Reem Al-Ajeel