Charting the Course of Career Dreams
Whether it’s as a teenager or in your twenties, there may well be a reality check for some Muslim women in their career choices. Amal Awad reflects on the musical career that never was.
Like any teenager, I had modest career aspirations. In my case, I would take singing lessons in order to develop my somewhat decent singing voice, before proceeding on to an illustrious career in musical theatre. My ‘Everest’ was to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera, though being the reasonable character that I am, Maria in West Side Story would have kept me equally satisfied.
The only real, and I suppose rather significant, dent in the plan was that I was growing up Muslim. Not a problem so much as a barrier to a glamorous career as a star of the stage and later, naturally, the screen. In truth, despite any yearning I had to express myself musically, I knew that it wasn’t a realistic career path. I would probably wear a hijab one day (causing costume conflict), get married (on-stage interaction issues), and have to sing and dance in public (where do I start?).
And truth be told, I was at peace with that. I never did the school plays beyond the ones we did for assemblies (where there was an all-female cast), and I only ever sang in school choirs (once again, all girls). I’d like to think I wasn’t shouting myself down so much as picking my battles. I was fairly conservative and realised a singing career wasn’t in line with my Islamic-oriented lifestyle, no matter how well I could belt out ‘All I Ask of You’ along to the cassette player.
The reality of the challenges I would face as a Muslim woman hit me while on an overseas trip during high school
But it made me think about what other career paths may be open to me when there seemed to be so many limitations. I could have taken a scientific route, but I did poorly in chemistry and physics. Even biology challenged me, though I suspect it was more a lack of interest than ability (that’s my argument and I’m sticking with it).
At some point I decided that I was destined for a humanities-related career – most likely a journalist in the spirit of the feisty types you saw in old black and white movies. They had gumption, and used words like ‘gumption’, while saying things like, ‘Listen up, Marty – I’m no simple broad’ in a thick New York accent. The men were all clever and handsome, and the ladies were not so much crashing through the glass ceiling as delicately tapping it as they reached their goals. It was my romantic view of the future, and it suited my lifestyle. There was a modesty to the classics that I could relate to.
That I romanticised my career goals was to be expected. I’ve always been a daydreamer, getting lost in a book or in my head. As a teenager, while I made time for Sweet Valley High and heavier fiction, I also invested untold hours in reading autobiographies of stars from the golden age of Hollywood, like Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. I was fascinated by their drive, and their successes – met in equal measure by many professional and personal failures.
They impressed and excited me, but I suppose it was because it gave me access to a world I could never belong to. I was barely allowed to go to the movies, let alone be in them. And my ballet lessons stopped around the same time I was no longer allowed to go swimming at the beach.
My barriers were already in place, so wherever I went career-wise wasn’t likely to be problematic. I know this is the case for many Muslim women who are trying to do the balancing act – career and spiritual life.
In the end, I studied and graduated with a combined arts/law degree. That whole humanities slant won out, and I was too timid to plunge headfirst into a journalism degree. Back in the 90s, communications was a bit of an unknown. Law was more identifiable, and it was a respectable career choice.
In all honesty, I have no regrets. Being the philosophical type that I am, I believe we always get to our destination if we just keep moving – even if we take the longest route imaginable. As with anything, we seek fulfilment and success – and these are actually attainable.
While intuitively we tend to know what paths best suit us, the reality of the challenges I would face as a Muslim woman hit me while on an overseas trip during high school. A female relative whom I’d always seen as a mentor type – young, cool, understanding – rather aggressively questioned me about my career goals. Didn’t I know that I had restrictions and that I had to be realistic? What would my family/husband/shopkeeper-down-the-road think if I had to travel? It was a mortifying, soul-crushing conversation I have never forgotten.
Fifteen years later, I can see that this woman spoke out of her own self-imposed restrictions, and perhaps even fear. I look back on my 17-year-old self, chastised and suddenly insecure, so afraid that she’d be held back from achieving her yet-to-be-determined goals, and I want to tell her something.
I want to tell her not to worry; that it’s okay to dream and keep your heart and mind open to different paths, because having a career is not a pipe dream if you work hard – and somehow career and religion will all connect as you gently tap that ceiling.
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