Editor’s Notes: As Sunday was International Women’s Day, we continue to highlight women’s community efforts, challenges, and perspectives. We hope that in highlighting these articles relating to women that it serves as a reminder that women in Islam should not only be recognized on this day but should be recognized every day and appreciated for their work, efforts, and contributions to our families and our societies. Click here, here and here to read the other content we have published for International Women’s Day.
One of the most challenging aspects of talking about your own accomplishments is determining whether what you are sharing is seen as inspirational, or as egotistical and arrogant. Nonetheless, I was asked to share the journey that has led me to where I am so here is my story.
My name is Rahma Hersi and I owe the very essence of my being to my almighty creator (Allah (SWT)) and my incredible parents. My father, Hassan Hersi, is a wise and compassionate man and, I am forever humbled and blessed to have him as my dad. As a child, my father recognized my love for books and he encouraged and nurtured this love by reading stories to me and allowing us children to share his books. I recall how much I loved the humour section of the American monthly Reader’s Digest, and whenever dad bought it, we would fight over it so much that he would take it back and read it to us all.
My father’s love for education, despite not being a high school graduate himself, resulted in him taking us to good private schools. These schools were known for their discipline and high standards of learning but were Catholic-run institutions. Dad’s view was that it was imperative for us to get a good education in a diverse environment. He reasoned that such an education would afford us the ability to contribute to our diverse world, with all of its wonderful differences; exposure to diversity would make us better able to appreciate the one thing all people have in common — our shared humanity. In my teens, I began to explore my understanding of my faith and I struggled not with the message but rather the practice of it that I saw all around me. This created an intense crisis within my heart as I wasn’t sure how to reconcile these conflicted feelings. I knew I had to learn and study my faith for myself as I was sick and tired of being force fed explanations by society. My parents were very supportive and encouraging and they allowed me to go find myself and begin my own journey down this path.
This, to me, is really where my story begins. It’s the experiences of travelling, studying, and working in four countries that has shaped me into who I am today, alhamdullilah.
Allah directed my first steps to Khartoum, Sudan to learn Arabic: a language that is infinitely beautiful and holds the key to understanding the Qur’an . I completed my diploma in Arabic, and consequently a mini-certificate in life due to the incredible experiences I had while there. My time in Sudan exposed me to wonderful country that has some of the kindest people I have been blessed to meet. The Sudanese are warm open-hearted people who will fight to have you come to their homes, feed you, and welcome you into their families without any qualms whatsoever.
Backtracking a bit, my initial career interest was to become a journalist like Christiana Amanpour of CNN. I interned at several media houses, the Standard newspaper and KTN being among those places I interned at. The exposure and experience I got while interning built my confidence and led me to understand that journalism was not the best path for me. I had the wonderful fortune of interviewing one of the greatest men that Africa is proud to have produced, Nelson Mandela. The interview and conversation I had with this legend was facilitated by my seniors at the time: two wonderful men who saw something in a bright-eyed,youthful, optimistic girl. They nurtured me and gave me an opportunity of a lifetime to speak with this man, who until that interview, I had only read about in history books.
Even with such an opportunity, my career in journalism was short-lived. I decided to go back and join law school and study both Islamic law and secular law. Understanding the dichotomous nature of the legal system and how it affects the societies that have implemented both, or societies that have a portion of segment of one or the other, has since then became my life-long passion.
I graduated with my LLB Honors in Shari’a and Law and got an academic scholarship to do my master’s degree in the US. I got my Master’s in International Comparative Law with a concentration in Business Law. The interesting thing was I graduated during one of the worst financial crises that the world has ever experienced, that of 2008-2009. This led me to return home and take a stab at building my career. I joined the first Islamic bank in Kenya, First Community Bank.
This was an incredible opportunity as it gave me my first exposure into how important this industry was to our Kenyan economy and the African region at large. My thirst for a bigger challenge and my desire to satisfy my wanderlust led me to Bahrain, a small island in the Persian Gulf, where I worked with one of the big four accounting firms Ernst and Young. I worked in their Islamic finance division in their Islamic Financial Services Group. This was truly a lifetime opportunity as I got to work in a more mature market that had further developed the Islamic finance industry into more than a niche market. I met people from all walks of life and got to connect with them. The love, compassion, and care I got interacting with all these wonderful souls continued to affirm to me that deep where it really matters, we are all people with the same fears, concerns, hopes, and aspirations, and if we can continue to connect at that level repeatedly, our world would be a much better place.
I came back home in the middle of 2012, and I still wasn’t sure if I still wanted to work in Kenya. But Allah (SWT), in his infinite mercy, had a plan for me and I am grateful he is always there to guide us and never leaves us to our own devices.
I consulted and freelanced through 2013 until August of that year when I got a call from a dear friend in Bahrain who requested me to speak at an international conference in Helsinki, Finland on the area of Islamic finance. Around this time, my mentor and a few incredible people put me in touch with the director general of research and training at the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). It quickly became clear that employment was not an option, but an even better opportunity opened up where I got to start my own company with two partners, Awal Consulting Limited: the first Islamic financial advisory firm in Kenya.
This was no small feat as I had come from being unemployed, to freelancing, to being a managing partner of a firm that signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Research and Training Institute, a member of the IDB group. Let me add that we may plan but Allah has his own plans. His plan for me was to keep my work within my own community to work to build this industry with the best support my partner and I could possibly ask for. Having a multi-lateral institution partnering up and believing in your ideas and is ready to support your goals, is a humbling experience.
Awal Consulting Limited was born in 2014, but in reality, the path to this goal began much earlier. In fact, I would dare say it started almost 12 years ago.
The lessons I have learned during this journey, and I continue to learn every day, is that there is no substitute for hard work and prayer. Allah (SWT) opens doors where there are none and puts amazing people in our paths and vice versa. I have learnt a wonderful principle that I try to live by every day: “Have mercy on the ones one on the earth, and the one in the heavens will have mercy on you”. I have learnt that it is crucial to truly seek and understand your faith and the principles of your faith in order to be be a people of knowledge; ignorance is what is destroying us around the world and is causing us to be a disservice to our global family.
I have learnt that nothing is impossible and we set limitations upon ourselves. I have learnt that our religion is a deen of ultimate faith and optimism and we fail our heritage when we refuse to rise to our ideals. I think the worst enemy to our community, and the world at large, is existence without purpose. We each have a role to play in this life and we need to seek what that is.
I also learnt during my journey that there is no substitute for unconditional love and support from loved ones. I would not have accomplished half of what I have done if I had not gotten the love, security, and unfailing support from my dad who never finished school but sacrificed everything he had to make sure his daughters and son went to wonderful schools and received a good education. I would not be who I am if I did not have a mother whose internal strength we always turn to when things get difficult. Her wonderful sense of humor and refusal to give up on the things she believes in have molded me into who I am, and I ask Allah to have mercy on both of them always. Ameen.