Typically, when you ask someone what comes to mind when they think of leadership, we hear words and phrases such as “to inspire”, “to motivate”, “guidance”, “influence”, and even strength.
However, for Firhaana Bulbulia, the idea of leadership goes beyond this. In fact, for her, it has a particularly important duty: ensuring the perspectives of the most vulnerable in society are heard and represented.
The last 11 years of her life have been symbolic of this, with her acting as a custodian for the rights of women and girls.
“It really started when I finished secondary school. Moving on to UWI, I had more time to think about a lot of issues, particularly those around women,” Firhaana recalled.
An increased understanding of these issues also led to growing frustration over how women in the Muslim community were being treated and how many of their challenges were being silenced or swept under the rug.
In response, Firhaana took her advocacy efforts to social media, creating the Barbados Association of Muslim Ladies (BAML). Although at the time she did not know what would come of it, she was optimistic it was the right thing.
The next few years would bring challenges for young Firhaana, as she admits that, initially, the association did not receive the kind of support and attention she had hoped for.
“I really thought people would have welcomed the opportunity to express themselves,” she said.
The challenges also became personal, especially as she “existed in a community where young women were not seen as leaders”. She faced a lot of pushback in the early stages and her character and motives were called into question by some.
“Sometimes people don’t talk about the struggles they go through with breaking down barriers, but those experiences affected me,” Firhaana admitted.
Regardless, she persevered, and 2015 was a turning point. BAML launched its Breaking Barriers project, which was aimed at overcoming the cultural and social barriers some girls face in accessing education and religious spaces. With this initiative, more people, not just locally or regionally, started taking notice of her work. In 2016, Firhaana became a recipient of the Queen’s Young Leader Award.
These developments served as a launching pad for BAML, allowing the organization to do more, such as providing education grants for women and launching awareness campaigns on the need for family/women-friendly mosques in Barbados.
Firhaana has learned that even being from different communities, women face many similar challenges and can unite in solving them.
“When you have groups like BAML, who work with very specific and targeted communities, it creates greater opportunities for solidarity on the issues,” she told TODAY’s Woman.
In more recent times, the Chevening scholar has been navigating the association through the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications, particularly for women.
“The pandemic has really expanded some of the inequalities that already exist, showing the need to create better structures to protect the most vulnerable,” she said.
BAML has been filling that gap.
“In March last year, we launched a hotline for women who were in distress, dealing with anxiety or cases of domestic violence,” Firhaana said. “The hotline was created with Muslim women in mind, so we have two Muslim female counsellors who are also fluent in Gujarati [an Indo-Aryan language native to the Indian state of Gujarat].”
The initiative has been well received and BAML was recently awarded a grant from the Global Resilience Fund to expand and extend its work on gender-based violence.
Firhanna intends to continue her work, acknowledging that she draws her strength “from the diverse women and girls who surround her”.
After all, she would be the first to admit that BAML was built on sisterhood and has achieved what it has because of the collective action of the BAML team.
She said International Women’s Day and this year’s theme #ChoosetoChallenge “represents a time for personal reflection, to see how and in what other areas she [a woman] can continue to grow and challenge her own personal views”.
Firhanna encourages all women and girls to “trust yourself, trust your experiences and you will know what is best for you. Keep doing you and be confident in who you are.”
This article appears in the 2021 edition of TODAY’s Woman. Read the full publication here.