Is it because I’m Black, is it because I’m a woman, is it because I’m Muslim or is it just me? I sometimes find myself overanalyzing microaggressions, but I’m working on keeping what I internalise positive.
I would describe myself as a 23-year-old British Nigerian Muslim woman, London born and bred, graduate engineer. That’s me in a nutshell but of course these are just labels. There are so many other elements to who I am. I’m a bit of an anomaly, in the sense that I’m used to standing out in all sorts of settings and circumstances.
Growing up, my awareness of the key aspects of my identity developed at different times before I finally accepted the intersectionality. I’d say the first thing I noticed about myself was that I was a girl. I remember being really playful and fighting boys when they wouldn’t let me play football, but I think at that young age I was beginning to notice the differences between girls and boys in terms of different treatment and privileges. This awareness continued in my subject choices as I was often one of few girls in my classes.
I think the next thing that became most apparent was my Blackness or racial identity. Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is a huge reassurance, so when you find yourself in situations where the people around you don’t mirror your qualities, it’s easy to focus on the differences or think how someone else’s experience might be easier than yours, or better, or different.
Of all parts of my identity, I’d definitely say my religion is at the centre helping me hold all aspects of my life together. Of course all of these elements make me, but I feel like Islam’s at the core because I strive for everything I do to be pleasing to God – my choices and my motivations. An Islamic principle holds that the best people are those who bring the most benefit to others. I guess this is a huge source of my inspiration – wanting to please God and help others through my actions and through my work.
My sense of consciousness in Ramadan is on another level, it’s so hard to explain to people. I mean, naturally, I can’t do hungry – if I’m hungry, I can’t concentrate. But if I’m fasting, I am more focused than ever. It’s very strange. If I know I need to be especially productive at work, sometimes I’ll fast intentionally, just because I know that my awareness of everything heightens.
The basic level of fasting is no eating, drinking or sex from dawn to dusk. Above that is having a higher level of morality in your words and actions, so no lying or fighting. But the highest level is purifying everything you expose yourself to, everything that goes in and comes out of you. It’s fasting from all negativity – in your intentions, thoughts, feelings and conversations – whilst being more spiritually active – praying, reflecting and reading the Quran more. So Ramadan is like a month of building good habits in the hope of maintaining a higher level of God-consciousness throughout the year.
It could just be a look or a disregard, or just the way someone does something, but unfortunately if someone acts negatively towards me, I question myself – is it because I’m Black, is it because I’m a woman, is it because I’m Muslim or is it just me? I try and think of a reason behind an action when it may not be that deep, but equally it could be exactly as it seems. I sometimes find myself overanalysing microaggressions, but I’m working on keeping what I internalise positive. When I’m travelling around, I try to put my headphones in or dive into a book to block things out because I can look into things a bit too much.
I recently read about this phenomenon called the Impostor Syndrome and the concept resonated with me. It’s a mindset of self-doubt and inadequacy – where someone feels anxious, that they don’t deserve their success and fear that they will be ‘found out’. So instead of celebrating accomplishments, these would be dismissed or attributed to chance. It’s commonly experienced by women in male-dominated professions and minority groups. I think I have internalised a lot of this, because although I am ‘qualified’ to be where I am, I almost need to work twice as hard to overcome the mental barriers of me thinking that I shouldn’t be here.
In the different settings I’ve found myself in, I’ve often realised that I am the ‘token something.’ I couldn’t help but notice at our graduate induction event, of the almost three hundred new starters there I was the only Black woman and the only woman wearing a headscarf that I could see. No one’s made me feel this way, but when it happens repeatedly you begin to think, “Am I just here to tick a diversity box or fill a quota?” I know I shouldn’t ever let myself think that (it’s the Imposter Syndrome again) but realistically, I’m conscious of how I am a convenient ‘quota filler’.
My favourite subject in secondary school was Design and Technology. I loved getting hands-on in Product Design, planning, drawing and actually seeing my ideas come to life. I did really well in my GCSEs, but had absolutely no idea what I wanted do later on. I remember spending the summer doing loads of these online career tests that match your skills and interests to a profession. They would always come up with engineering. But in my ignorance, I thought engineering was fixing cars and that wasn’t appealing to me, so I just kept brushing it off.
I remember one significant invitation came through my college inbox from our careers advisor, looking for four girls to visit a company called Arup. They were hosting a ‘Connect Women’ event where women presented some of the exciting infrastructure projects they were working on. As they’re an engineering firm I thought, ‘You know this ‘engineering’ word keeps coming up, I should probably check it out.’
The event was simply amazing. It presented this career that I never imagined existed but had everything I was looking for: problem-solving, creativity, design, science and management all in one. I went back in the summer for a fun week of work experience with the design teams working on the London 2012 Olympic Park – I was sold from that!
I recently started a graduate tunnel engineering role with Atkins, a global engineering consultancy. To get here, I studied Physics, Maths, Chemistry and French at college. I chose these subjects before ‘discovering’ engineering but conveniently they were good enough to progress to a Civil and Structural Engineering degree at the University of Leeds, which included a year abroad in Hong Kong.
I’m used to the diversity of such a multicultural city as London, so the difference was very stark when I got to campus in Leeds. I was initially out of my comfort zone, but I didn’t isolate myself; I got involved. I got onto society committees, organised events and got active in student politics and elections. I found a way to make myself at home by bringing different people together to embrace and celebrate diversity.
I’ve travelled a lot and learnt so much from different people and cultures, but my Hong Kong experience was probably the most life-changing of them all. I always say to people, “I found myself there” – because there was literally nowhere to hide. As a visibly Muslim Black woman, wearing a headscarf, long dresses and with eyes as big as mine, I really was something else to a lot of people in Hong Kong. The extra attention and photo requests took some getting used to, but people’s curiosity and questions definitely made me appreciate the opportunity to share something different, draw parallels and learn from each other’s experiences.
I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m really passionate about helping other people to develop themselves, whether that’s professionally, socially or spiritually. I’m a STEM Ambassador so I occasionally work with young people in schools. I also work with Engineers Without Borders, the Engineering Development Trust and some Islamic organisations. When I was growing up I didn’t know what engineering was. I had an interesting journey of discovery, but if I had known earlier I could have saved myself the confusion. So if I’m able to either be that inspiration, or help someone else become a role model for the next generation, that would be so rewarding.
I’d love to work around the world. Literally everywhere. It would be the dream to live five years here, then there, but wherever there’s an exciting project that will make a real difference to people’s lives – that’s where I want to be.