Breaking from the Norm

Awatif Yahya: Breaking From the Norm

Awatif Yahya is the founder of Awe Horizons, a company that offers leadership workshops and consultancy services to business managers and entrepreneurs to help them gain competitive advantage. Here, she shares her journey of “breaking from the norm.”

I have made it my mission to break perceptions and stereotypes for Muslim women.

The image of Muslim women being docile, illiterate and obliged to address the needs of men in their families is inaccurate. Although there are women (of all religions) who are unfortunate enough to fall under that lifestyle, the majority of us are educated, ambitious and determined to contribute to our families and societies. We have full control of our destinies, and we do the things we do out of choice, including wearing head-scarfs.

With that in mind, I share my story.

I am one of seven siblings, all girls and from the same set of parents! I rank number six. I and my younger sister were born in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the 1970s. Big families are not uncommon in Arabia, but having all your children from one sexual identity, especially female, raises eyebrows. Some would consider it a misfortune to have all those daughters (especially in Arabia during the sixties and seventies), while others would consider it a source of income with promised dowries from their marriages!

But not my parents. They considered their kids nothing but a blessing. A girl or boy did not make a bit of difference to them as long as they were healthy, happy and well-behaved (at least most of the time).

I grew up in a society full of expectations. Keeping face and maintaining the traditional norms were highly valued. I was expected to finish my education at school, maybe get a higher degree to keep up with appearances, then fall into the society norms for a young Arab-Muslim lady with marriage and raising a family. A higher education was not expected, let alone career progression, or traveling while remaining unmarried!

I lived every day of my life with the utmost intention and determination to break from the norm. I wanted to show everyone another story for a Muslim woman, full of twists and turns. I wanted to leave bold, bright and inspirational footsteps for a different path for future generations of young Muslim women. I also wanted to break social norms and encourage people to question whatever stereotypes they might have for us. So here is what I did:

I broke from the norm.

Not only did I get a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology (a field rarely explored by women back in the 1990s, let alone Arab women), but I also pursued an MBA through a Fulbright Scholarship in the USA. Now, I am a Fulbrighter for life! I maintained a progressive career path, climbing the ladder to an executive role as Head of Human Resources in the multinational organization British American Tobacco (BAT). I traveled for work and was assigned secondments to work internationally in Germany, the UK, and Algeria (an emerging market for BAT). I visited 50 countries, exploring various foods and cultures, I volunteered in an orphanage in Vietnam, and worked in a panda conservation and research center in rural China. I did all that while remaining unmarried, and – most outrageously – I emigrated from the homeland!

That’s all in the past, but my adventures continue to unfold and I cannot wait to see what challenges will come my way. Now, I am the founder of Awe Horizons LLC, an innovative company offering leadership workshops and consultancy services to business managers and entrepreneurs.

I am passionate about leadership skills and companies that embrace those skills to develop their talent and gain competitive advantage. My workshops aim to improve the relationship between companies and employees, creating a work culture where everyone can excel and grow.

Please feel free to reach out to me for any assistance, questions or a friendly chat.

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