This International Women’s Day 2021, we’re putting the spotlight on the exceptional women in our organisation. These women are driving real change for Islamic Relief and the communities that we serve. Here we hear from Arwa Kawan, a community fundraising officer for Islamic Relief UK.

I am currently the only female community fundraiser for Islamic Relief UK, and the first Arab woman in my role too. Working at Islamic Relief, I have been very lucky, as I have been always treated with respect and fairness and was allowed to set my personal boundaries from the start. I never feel that being the only woman in my line of work is an issue, though I’m eager to see more women getting involved.

However, when I’m working in the community and meet people with my male colleagues, I find that people talk to the men rather than me. Even after I introduce myself some ask to speak to “whoever is in charge”. I’ve even been at events with male volunteers, in which people directed their questions to the male volunteers rather than me, the person in charge.

It annoyed me. I felt that no matter how far I got in my career people would still overlook me merely because I was a woman. I then choose to be more assertive. Now when people do that I tell them to speak directly to me, and that they shouldn’t treat me differently because I’m a woman. I am proud to be a lot stronger now, and able to navigate these situations and challenge harmful behaviours.

Challenging stereotypes and breaking down barriers

Women have always been forced to conform to social and cultural status quos, so we need to challenge these ideas of what a woman can and cannot do, and to take up spaces from which we were previously excluded.

I worry that people may misunderstand this as taking peoples’ jobs, or forcing women into spotlights they don’t want to be in. This is not the case: it’s about breaking stereotypes of what a woman should do in the workplace, challenging toxic cultural and societal ideas that minimise the importance of womanhood.

I’ve always challenged any ideas that men and women aren’t equal or shouldn’t be offered the same opportunities. My religion has taught me that I am important, and there is no one that can tell me otherwise. Throughout my life I was forced to challenge people. I was told by my university lecturers that my dyslexia would deter me from completing my English degree. They underestimated me.  I not only finished, but I excelled and I was able to finalise my Master’s degree.

Growing up inspired by strong women

I’m inspired by the example of Khadjiah RA, who is known for being trustworthy and loyal. She was the first to become Muslim and was the mother of the Believers. Also – and she would probably roll her eyes at me for saying this – my mother has shaped me to be who I am. She taught me to be compassionate and grateful. She taught me to have dignity and respect for myself, and to navigate difficult situations. My mother was an accountant before she had me, and believes that women should be self-sufficient. She sacrificed a lot so I could have opportunities, and that is why she is the person in my life that inspires me the most.

In addition, I am part of a community that champions women working in roles previously reserved for men – though the expectation is still that women are married with children by a certain age. I have been taught by my mother that none of that is important. That as long you’re a good person and faithful to God, you are more than enough.

As I grew up the community expected that I behave in a restrained way, to be careful of how I speak around men, and to not be aggressive with my ideas and opinions. Worries about what people would think of me kept me quiet. But my mother pushed me to speak my mind, even when I felt uncomfortable. Now I always speak up when I see wrongs being done.  I don’t hold back anymore, in my work and my life.

Enabling women to make a difference

Working as a fundraiser is a blessing as I’m as close to donors and work within the heart of the community. I am raising funds for women around the world so they can have access to food aid, empowerment and livelihood projects.

It also means I’m able to directly engage with women in the community who want to make a difference. Many times people want to help but they feel like they can’t make an impact or create change – especially women and girls. As a woman I can work closely with them, in mosques and community centres and girls’ schools. I encourage them to make a difference, to let their voices be heard and to take action. I encourage them to consider a career in community fundraising – we need more females on the frontlines and in positions of change.

I’d advise women and girls interested in pursuing a career in community fundraising to set boundaries, speak out when something doesn’t feel right and always speak your mind. Stop thinking your voice isn’t important. It took me much longer than it would have liked to come out of my shell as a fundraiser, but every time I’ve spoken up, my contribution made a difference.

Never let self-doubt make you pass up a good opportunity. Never feel like you are not worthy. Do not allow men to push you to the side. And when you achieve your dreams, do all you can to create more opportunities for women.