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Be the Change

Be the Change

Issue 71 August 2010

Change is not a distant ideal, but an inherent right that exists within each and every one of us.

People often ask me, “Did you always want to be a writer?” I answer that I didn’t know that I was a writer until I made it happen. People also ask me – particularly young women – how they can make an impact on the world? “I want to make a positive change,” they explain. “I want to be a writer.” But behind any headlines or book titles, what you need most is the will to change, and a belief in yourself. Of course, you need to learn how to create the change and you need to be persistent; keep on trying to make the change. You need the intention to engage in making change, simply because it’s the right thing to do. If the outcome is positive, then so much the better, but as long as you’ve done the right thing, that’s the most important part.

Like many teenagers, I went to school struggling with the questions of, ‘who am I?  What’s my identity and what is the meaning of my life?’ I was confused about how I fitted into life – I was Asian, Muslim, and a woman at a very typically English school. I lived three very separate lives, and I was three separate people.

My father has always taught us that education is the most important thing, and it is this fundamental principle that has helped to lay the foundations for who I am, and how I struggled with and resolved my inner conflicts. He would repeat the saying to us:  “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” So with his encouragement, I applied to Oxford University for my undergraduate studies, and I was accepted.

When I arrived as a student in this new environment, I found that when I learnt to be confident in myself as one person, to live all my lives in balance; sometimes more as one, sometimes more as another, then I felt truly happy and I felt that I could engage more directly with the world. I had a clearer picture of who I was, and I had a clearer picture of the world that I wanted to create.

I learnt an important point: don’t be afraid to be you. Just do things your way. Be a pioneer. In fact, don’t just not be afraid – be confident in what you have to offer the world – because only you can offer it. You are unique, you can see the world in a way that no-one else can, and it is your responsibility to live up to the blessing of being unique. The best thing that you can possibly be is you.

The famous Spanish artist Salvador Dali explains how he realised this same point, when he said, “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since: I wanted to be Salvador Dali and nobody else.”

After university, I created a career in marketing for the mobile and internet industry. I worked on some fascinating products and designed things like the world’s first pay as you go internet service.

During this time, September 11 happened, and it changed my own life as a Muslim woman from something that was very private, to a matter for public discussion. Everyone felt that they had a right to talk about me because I was a Muslim. Everyone felt that they had the right to attribute ideas and beliefs to me which I did not have, for example that I was a terrorist.

In 2005, I got asked by a local community paper to write a short article. So, I wrote the piece and discovered that I really enjoyed it. And I realised that when you enjoy something, and you have some raw talent, it is a duty to pursue it. So, I did something very surprising – I asked for a column, and my wish was granted. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. The column turned into a blog called which led to writing a book, ‘Love in a Headscarf’.

Change can only come if you say the words. Change only comes if you make it happen.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf, and writes a blog at

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