“No, Ray-hana.” I explained, using an Arabic emphasis on the ‘ha.’ This assertion usually led to puzzled looks, which ultimately led to me stating, “Rihana, if that’s easier.”
I don’t remember the moment that I stopped being Ray-ha-na and became Ri-ana. My name is officially spelt Rihana, but it was not until I had the burning desire to be accepted in the workplace, and in academic circles, that I went by the name. I felt embarrassment having to consistently teach people how to pronounce my name. This conversation usually led to questions about my heritage, and I started to associate this with questioning why I am there.
At a similar time, I began to subconsciously train myself to change my vocabulary. I stopped greeting people using “Salaam,” I would no longer use “Bismillah” before eating, or “inshAllah.” I yearned to be accepted, while not realising I was turning my back on my identity.
I began to believe that there was simply one way to be British and that my culture clashed with it.
I’ve spoken to many women who have different heritages, and they all recount the same change once they entered the workplace. Names were shortened, nicknames became actual names. Family phone calls were hushed, ‘mother tongues’ were forgotten.
I should have been proud to explain the pronunciation of my name, and not stopped explaining until the pronunciation was correct. I should have taken pride, and explained that it means fragrant and that it was the name of Prophet Muhammed’s wife.
I have now realised that my culture, my faith, and my heritage do not clash with being British. I have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. There is no definitive or correct way to be valid in British society.
Rihana Osman is a researcher, with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and a bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.
Scanning an office floor of a popular furniture company in London it was clear that first, it’s dominated by men and second, most of the females there were not of an ethnic let alone Muslim background. I am both those things, a Muslim woman of British Asian nationality, attempting to break into the design industry. It leaves me wondering about why there is such a lack of familiarity.
The office floor in question was for a job interview I had, which I didn’t get. I’m stuck in this position of how to get my foot in the door of the industry that so much of my enthusiasm lies. Looking into why this is the case has led me to identify that it isn’t always about the experience I have, but the whole package I have to offer as a person. In every environment I have worked in within this industry, I have always been the only one of “my kind.” In my previous job, a well known British paint company, I was lucky to have had colleagues who were actively interested in understanding multiple cultures. This was likely down to a large international customer base, but it gave me the opportunity to educate my colleagues about my background.
Having that platform,where even though their inquisitiveness had the potential to make me feel uncomfortable, taught me that it is ok providing I am not being singled out. The main challenge I have found working in the design industry is having to question myself as a person because of my identity: will I be taken seriously? Will clients know I actually work here? What do I do to fit in and progress? Questioning who I am and where I stand has in fact cemented my beliefs and taught me that getting where I want does not mean conforming, instead using it to my advantage to empower my individuality. Ultimately, it is about accepting who I am, allowing that very difference to ground me and using it as the tool to further myself in my career. It sets me apart from my colleagues in a positive way by driving me to prove my capabilities and strengths.
Just as the late Zaha Hadid paved the way, a shining torch as it were for women and Muslim women alike, I will strive to work towards one being able to walk into an office, scan and find familiarity by advocating that there needs to be equality for not only gender but also religion. When questioned in an interview with Interview magazine on the role of women in Islam, Hadid states “many women don’t have the encouragement and support they need to [advance in their careers].” That support manifests itself on multiple levels: from family, friends or the workplaces themselves. In my opinion, without the support from this industry itself, there will be a continuance of little to no women let alone Muslim women making it through the gaps.
Amira Hasan is the Resident Writer for Change the Script. She has a passion for writing, style and design. In her spare time, she writes short pieces and blogs on lifestyle.
“And my daughter pointed to the image of the woman with blonde straight hair and said
‘Mummy I want hair like her’.
Selina Bakkar from Amaliah.com at Stylist Live: ‘Meet the Muslim Women Empowering Others’ “
The misrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the media is recognised as a widespread issue and different narratives are being published in order to counter it. Despite that narrative, a time old issue still remains; the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the arts, culture, and fashion. When those from ethnic minorities are included they are usually misrepresented or displayed as ‘exotic,’ which feeds into the harmful trend of fetishization and alienation.
“Society has prescribed one ideal of what it means to be beautiful, and this is something that is in desperate need of change”
During the Stylist Live panel on Muslim Women Influencing Others, Selina Bakkar spoke of when her young daughter pointed out an image of a white, blonde woman and expressed her wistful thoughts on looking like her. This was the moment where she realised there is a desperate need for change.
The effects of under-representation in fashion and film can be devastating on one’s self-esteem and can even lead to severe complexes. When everything you are shown as beautiful (models, actresses etc) are so far from how you appear yourself, you naturally begin to question whether you can ever be worthy of beauty. In secondary school, I absolutely hated my thick, curly hair. A majority of my closest friends were from different ethnic backgrounds too, we made daily habits of attempting to change our appearance to fit in with the societal definition of beauty, we attempted to tame our hair and wild eyebrows, and are naturally different body shapes were subject of ongoing despair.
Advertising plays a huge role in this. For example, the advertising for hair products growing up persistently projected the image that big, frizzy hair was ugly and that it should be tamed in order to be beautiful. I received my first hair straighteners as a gift when I was 13 years old. I was overcome with excitement, thinking I’d finally have something close to beautiful hair. Two hours later, in a room filled with the odour of burnt hair, I turned to look in the mirror. Of course, it was nothing like what I had wished for. I didn’t suddenly have long, smooth, shiny, straight hair.
“our features being surgically placed on others and described as beautiful is hurtful to many”
So after years of being told by society that is natural features were not synonymous with beauty, to see our features being surgically placed on others and described as beautiful is hurtful to many. Of course, people are free to do as they please, the aspect of the trend that is hurtful is that these features were never described as beautiful until they were placed on others. They are now heavily featured in fashion campaigns, and many models and influencers now possess these characteristics. They are on front pages, used in fashion campaigns, however, they are still not represented by those who possess the features naturally through their heritage.
POSITIVE ACTION vs REPRESENTATION
Now we come to considerate and deliberate over what the best way forward is. The term ‘positive discrimination’ is usually met with eye rolls or disgust. ‘If people are truly capable, they will eventually reach that position.’ Some individuals who could benefit from positive action also refuse it, stating they do not want to be a token, they should be recognised for their achievements alone. I believe that these individuals are simply not looking at the bigger picture. The bigger picture is the representation and encouraging participation. I believe they are failing to recognise the drastic impact that inclusion could have on an individual’s self-worth and the impact it would have on the changing of monotonous beauty ideals.
If you want to feature plump lips, frizzy hair, a curvy body, dark skin, thick eyebrows, braids or a hijab in campaigns, advertising or film, then simply hire women who have these traits. Trust me, there are plenty of them who are dying to be recognised for their talent. If you need an actress to play a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh- then employ the actresses who actually belong to and understand these cultures. They are being ignored, they are not tokens and they have talent.
Rihana Osman is a writer with a postgraduate degree in Global Ethics and Human Values and a Bachelors in Law. Rihana is an advocate for gender equality and social justice.