Firhaana Bulbulia is a young member of the Barbadian Muslim community who, despite her tender age, has taken on a big public education assignment which is national in scope. Six years ago, the 21-year-old special needs teacher and former St Michael School student was instrumental in establishing the Barbados Association of Muslim Ladies. A key objective is helping Barbadians who are not Muslims to gain a better understanding of Muslim women living on the island.
“I want to help people to understand Islam better and why we dress the way we dress. Within the media, there is a lot of misunderstanding about Muslim women,” said Firhaana.
Her leadership on this initiative has earned her a 2016 Queen’s Young Leaders Award and a chance to meet Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace in London in another three months when the award will be presented.
“Muslim women have come under a lot of scrutiny in the past based on how we dress. There is this assumption that the way we dress is associated with terrorism or oppression,” the daughter of Barbados Muslim Association public relations officer, Suleiman Bulbulia, told Barbados TODAY in an interview. As Firhaana sees it, the myths and misunderstanding which non-Muslim Barbadians generally have about Muslim women, is a reflection of not being knowledgeable about the faith.
As a response, she is always thinking of innovative ways to give non-Muslim Barbadians an insight into the life of the average Muslim woman. She expressed excitement about the upcoming opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth II in June, saying she was humbled to have been chosen for the award. She found out about the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme from last year’s winner Donnya Piggott, executive director of the Barbados Gays, Lesbians and All-sexuals against Discrimination (BGLAD).
“We got to talking and she told me that she had won the award and so on and that it would be something that I should look out for next year,” she said. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t too sure what to do because I have never been so public before about the organization and the work that we do.” Firhaana subsequently received an email notifying her that she had been nominated for the award and that she should formally apply for it.
“I did apply after much thought,” she said, “and then a couple months after, I guess, after they reviewed the application, I had found out that I won.” Firhaana said it has been a surreal experience since then.
She considers the award an important recognition for her small association which does a lot of its work at the grass roots level. “I am thankful that a lot of people have been supportive of this whole journey as a Queen’s Young Leader,” she said with a smile. Getting back to the association which is dear to her heart, Firhaana said she founded it after she observed that there was no avenue for Muslim women to advocate for rights or the promotion of their social, educational and personal development.
“Throughout the years, we have worked on helping women within the (Muslim) community to develop. (We) host discussions where they can talk about issues, where they can learn about different health issues,” she said. The young leader said she just wanted people on the outside looking on at the community and making their own conclusions to see that in some ways, Muslims are just like them.
“There are some things about us that are similar (as) we are Bajan just like everyone else. Apart from the way we dress and the things we do, we are still very similar. I think when you connect people through the things that make them similar, that’s what helps to build a society,” she explained. “Everyone always comes to me and says you are an Indian. I am not Indian.
I am 100 per cent Bajan. I tell people that all the time. I have never been to India. I have never known that way of life. All I have ever known is what I have seen here and what I have been able to experience here,” Firhaana declared, hitting a passionate tone. She said one of her association’s most recent undertakings involved members going into Queen’s Park on February 29 to spread awareness about the Muslim head dress worn by women known as the hijab.
This activity was held to support the public education objectives of World Hijab Day, observed on February 1. The idea was to encourage non-Muslim women to wear the hijab for the day and experience life as a hijabi woman (i.e. a woman wearing a hijab).
“We set up a booth in Queen’s Park and we were talking to women and having women try on the hijab and wear it,” said Firhaana, who gave the interview proudly wearing a pink hijab.
“I think that event went extremely well in terms of getting people to understand (the hijab) a little better.” Currently, the association has about 10 active members who engage about 60 women, primarily via social media.
Firhaana spoke about the negative impact which the introduction of tuition fees for Barbadian students attending the University of the West Indies, was having on her community. She reported a considerable decline in the small number of Barbadian Muslim female students on Cave Hill.
Her organization is moving to assist Muslim females aspiring to obtain a tertiary education but could not afford the costs. With this in mind, the association last year launched a fundraising drive.
“This is what our activities are centred around now. Our first fundraiser for this particular project was held last summer and we were able to help one student. Our next fundraiser is going to be held at the end of this month and we are hoping to be able to help more students,” she said.(AH)