Don't let them tell you it can't be done
As most of you know, in January 2015 I moved to Kitchener from Toronto after I landed a job as a Reporter/Videographer. I'd previously worked in the news industry for five years in various capacities, but this move marked a huge milestone in my career, and a long time personal goal. I've been asked many times to share my experience and it's taken me a while to finally sit down and write about it.
People have asked when I knew I wanted to be a reporter, and thinking about it, I realized it went a long way back. From a very young age I had dreamt about becoming the first hijabi reporter in Canadian broadcast media, but for a long time it was just that: a dream. I wasn’t sure it could ever be realized -- not because of my own abilities, but because I wasn’t sure someone who looked like me would be accepted on Canadian TV.
I was a pretty exuberant kid. I loved performing and being in the spotlight. I wore the hijab from a very young age, but that didn’t stop me from getting involved in school plays, choirs, and playing a number of musical instruments.
When I was in the third grade, I won a speech competition at school. It was the first time I realized that I had something interesting to say, and that people were listening. I loved the feeling of standing on a stage behind a microphone and having the entire auditorium captivated by my words. I felt right at home.
I thought I might be interested in pursuing something in the entertainment business, but I’d never seen anyone who looked like me on TV. It was a pre-9/11 world. Muslims weren’t really feared in the media; they just didn’t exist.
In the sixth grade I had a teacher who had once been a reporter in Montreal. She had us do a section in English class as a mock newspaper. I took a huge interest in it, and it was then that my mother suggested that broadcast news might be a good career choice for me.
Though the seed had been planted, I set limitations for myself from early on. I remember telling my mother that I should consider going into radio, “because what you look like doesn’t matter. It’s just about your voice.” But she encouraged me to dream bigger, and that just because no one else had done it, didn’t mean it couldn’t be done.
I ended up pursuing a degree in Communications, and later, a diploma in Broadcast Journalism. I eventually landed an internship at major TV news station in Toronto, and went on work as a segment producer in both TV and radio. But I was still chasing that elusive dream. I began volunteering at a local cable station in Mississauga where I got my first real on-air experience and began building up my demo reel. I learned that landing a paid on-air gig was hard enough when you weren’t trying to be the first woman in hijab to do it.
Last year, while working as a producer, I got into a conversation with a colleague about my Muslim friend who had just been hired as a reporter. He asked if she wore hijab, and when I said no, he mused, “I doubt a woman in hijab would ever be hired TV. It’s just too distracting.” He wasn't aware about my own aspirations, so I just smiled and shrugged in response. Inside, I really wanted to believe he was wrong, but a small part of me wasn’t so sure.
When I interviewed for the reporter position in Kitchener, I was asked what my biggest fear was. I gave my most honest answer: not being given a chance, not because I wasn’t a good reporter, but simply because I was too different. I ended up being offered a part-time position.
A few months after I was hired, I received an email from a random viewer. “Kitchener went from small town to big city when they hired you,” she wrote. “Love seeing you on the nightly newscast. Congratulations.”
Her words brought tears to my eyes. She was right; my news director had done something no one else in the country was brave enough to do: give a woman in hijab a chance. Months later, I asked my boss if he recognized the significance of what he had done by hiring me. He said he honestly didn’t realize how big of a deal it was – he just thought I would make a great reporter.
It feels really amazing to be the first hijabi reporter in Canada, but I certainly hope I'm not the last.