Shelina Janmohamed is an author, newspaper columnist, speaker, and Vice President of Ogilvy Noor – Ogilvy & Mather’s agency focused on building relationships with Muslim audiences. As part of our celebrations of International Women’s Day we caught up with her to find out more about her experiences as a Muslim woman in the male-dominated world of marketing and advertising.
Early in her career, when she was working in London as a product manager at Motorola, Shelina regularly found herself as the only woman in a room of 40 men. It was around this time that she first started to notice that she was being treated differently to her male counterparts.
“One of the things that I realised while I was working there is that I was talking and people were listening but they weren't really hearing what I was saying,” she says. “I think when I look back I really hadn't learnt about the politics of what was happening with my voice and my opinion.
“I would say something and nobody would really pay attention, and then somebody else would say it – a man would say it – and everyone would say it was a great idea.”
But at that stage, she says she didn’t realise what she needed to do to make her voice heard.
I was talking and people were listening but they weren't really hearing what I was saying
The July 7th terrorist attacks on London happened around the same time. And Shelina says that this significantly changed something for Muslims in the city. “I’m a born and bred Londoner,” she says. “But that event really made me feel that I was not really part of the place that was my home.
“I think that realisation was not unusual for many Muslims at that time – there’s a big Muslim population in London.”
But for Shelina, it was even closer to home. Her then-fiancé (now husband) could have easily been on the Piccadilly Line train that was bombed on its way to Russell Square. Despite the fact that he could have been a victim of the attack, they both felt that the mood in London changed and “suddenly we were under the spotlight as being the cause – being the terrorist”.
This caused Shelina to think more about finding her voice – and she set up a blog. “I remember thinking long and hard about the look that I wanted and the avatar that I used – she was a very cutesy weeble, she had a pink headscarf and sparkly shoes,” she explains. “I was thinking about how women present themselves in public, I remember I wanted to present myself in a way that was soft, friendly, comforting so that people would feel that they weren't under threat. I think when I look back I can understand why I presented myself in that way – but I do wonder why we feel the need to make other people feel comfortable with our opinions.”
Looking back, she thinks it strange that she was so concerned with what people would think of her opinions – she admits that she wouldn’t publish anything without her husband looking it over first, in case she said “something that was silly in public”. But she says now, “my opinion is my opinion, and it shouldn’t be considered silly by anybody.”
The blog began to build a readership, people were emailing her posts to one another and before she knew it, an invitation to speak on BBC’s Newsnight landed in her inbox. So, shaking in her boots, she made her TV debut. “One of the things I learnt from all this is that you really have to put yourself into those situations where you can share your opinion,” she says. “Having a forum where you can express your opinion on the world is really important so you have to take advantage of these opportunities.”
After her TV debut, Shelina found that she was being invited to more events and asked to speak or to write about her experiences of being a British Muslim – something that she didn’t understand, “I just go to work and I come home and I happen to be Muslim and it’s something that’s important to me,” she explains.
But an experience in a bookshop was set to change that. Upon seeing a display stocked with books about Muslim women that predominantly discussed their terrible experiences and featured covered faces and camels and sand dunes, Shelina realised that her story wasn’t being told. “I’m totally fine with people telling their own experiences – I think that’s really important. But I looked at the books and I said, ‘This is not my story. Where is my story in all this?’”
That was when she realised that if her story was going to be told, she would have to tell it herself. So she did. And in 2014, Love in a Headscarf hit the shelves.
Suddenly, Shelina’s career trajectory changed drastically. She started writing for newspapers and being invited to speak at a lot of events – she was considered an inspiring role model. “I remember showing my husband some of these invitations to these incredible events and I said, ‘I don't understand why I'm being asked to speak at this event,’” she admits. “And he just looked at me and went, ‘You do know you published a book, right?’
“And that was a really important moment in realising that you have to learn to see how other people see you and then take advantage of the platforms that you have. That was a really important lesson for me.”