It is official. Women are better multi-taskers then men according to scientists at the University of Pennsylvania. You do not agree? Well, take a look at Shabana Hasan: Economist, Editor, Writer, Newsreader, TV Personality, Academic, Researcher, Fashionista, Wife, Daughter. In all her roles, she executes with a strong sense of her Islamic faith. We sit with Shabana to find out more about what drives her.

Tell us about your family background and your upbringing as a child?

I am the youngest of three children – I have an elder brother and sister. As a child, I was pampered by both of my parents. Probably like many other precocious young girls, I did not enjoy studying. Instead, I loved to dress up, imagining that I was a Barbie doll. My siblings were not amused. They thought of me as being too pampered and spoilt.

I guess I am a late bloomer when it comes to education, as I only started to enjoy studying at the age of 16. You could say becoming 16 was life changing in the way I approached life. Growing up, my father was a businessman and my mother was a housewife. So I was exposed to business from a young age. At 16, both my sister and I managed a few food stalls (my sister is 3 years older than me). At that time, I was studying and running food stalls almost simultaneously: quite a departure from imagining being a Barbie doll!

You have travelled extensively and have lived in the UK as a postgraduate student at Durham University. Can you identify some salient features of the Muslim lifestyle in the West, Middle East and Asia?

Alhamdulillah, I can say that I have travelled quite extensively and at quite a young age as well. I am grateful for Allah (swt) permitting me the opportunity to enjoy and learn the beauty of other peoples’ culture and lifestyles. To give you a taste, some exotic places that I have travelled to are Turkey, Cyprus, Iraq, Maldives, Czech Republic, and Greece. There are many others! Alhamdulillah, I have also been to our sacred and holy lands – Mecca and Medina. Through travelling, I have gained a lot of self-confidence. Travelling also makes me feel humbled and continuously thankful for the mercy and kindness that Allah (swt) has bestowed upon me.

With all these years of travelling, I have learnt not to be too fussy with things. For example, being born and bred in Singapore, I am so used to the efficiency and high standard of living. This is not always present in some countries that I have travelled to. I learned that not all countries and places are the same, thus adaptation is very important. We all know that there is a stark difference between Islam and culture. With my various travelling experiences, I can say that I see Islam, as it should be practiced, in the West; most of the time I only see culture being practiced in the Middle East and some parts of Asia.

Is fashion for women incompatible with Muslim lifestyle?

It depends on how you define fashion itself. If you see fashion as dressing extravagantly with excessive make-up, then it is not my thing. Surely Islam does not permit it as well as Islam emphasizes modesty. I sincerely believe in ‘less is always more’ (not less in the sense of fewer clothes on your body, but rather adorning simplicity). For me fashion is about creating your own style with modesty and elegance. When fashion is involved with modesty, elegance and simplicity, this is something that is recommended in Islam as well. There is no issue of incompatibility. Also fashion isn’t just about what you wear, it is about how you wear it. The way you present and carry yourself is very important. The first impression that you give a person will heavily influence the way they think of you after that. As stated by Dr. Tariq Ramadan, “Modesty is the way you deal with beauty, not the way you avoid it”.

How did you get interested in Islamic banking and finance?

Initially I never intended to pursue Islamic banking and finance (IBF), but somehow it came to me. Allah (swt) willed it that way. In fact, pursuing IBF has completely changed my life. As mentioned earlier, I was born and raised in Singapore – a modern cosmopolitan country. The environment that I was in was very Western-oriented, and perhaps un-Islamic. I was also a part-time model. After I completed my Diploma in Accounting and Finance, I was supposed to pursue my undergraduate studies in Australia. At that time, something inside me was looking for greater satisfaction than just material pursuits. It is very difficult to express in words – basically I was searching for real peace and happiness. I wanted Islam to be a part of my life and not something that I see from afar. I wanted to wear the hijab and make Allah (swt) happy with me (I wasn’t wearing the hijab at that time). I realised going to Australia to further my studies would not be a good idea. I needed a conducive environment to help me change, to develop me into a woman with strong Islamic beliefs before I could embark on furthering my studies in Western countries. That is when I googled Islamic universities. The first one I found was International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). I told my family I wanted to join IIUM, instead of going to Australia. Everybody was so shocked and was completely against the idea (except for my dad). They told me that my future in Singapore will surely be bleak after that. I told them I didn’t care. My future is in Allah’s hands, not in my hands or anyone else. Basically, I was adamant and insisted fervently. I really wanted to learn about Islam, to be able to wake up hearing the azan from the masjid, to begin classes with the recitation of surah Al-Fatihah, to be able to pray at the masjid in between classes. I didn’t get to experience all these things in Singapore. Finally they accepted my decision. I then enrolled myself in IIUM; however IIUM informed me that since I did not have a religious education background, the only courses that would suit me would be from the Kuliyyah of Economics and Management Sciences (since I already had a Diploma in Accounting and Finance). I immediately accepted not actually knowing what the courses had to offer, and that’s when my journey in IBF began.

What would you eventually like to adopt as a career: fashion or Islamic finance?

I don’t see why I have to choose one over the other. Thus far, Alhamdulillah, I have tried doing both at the same time, and so far all is great and fine. I am very happy doing both. Also, besides Islamic finance and fashion, I am also a part-time TV host, news anchor and a Muslimah model. I believe that Allah has blessed me with the ability of doing more than one thing at a time, and I am very happy and thankful with that. I also see fashion as more than just a career. For me fashion is a way of life. I don’t have to work in the industry for me to be fashionable. It is something that I want to undertake on a daily basis. But since I am also currently pursuing my PhD in IBF and working as an Islamic finance researcher/consultant at the same time, I can say that my present career is more skewed towards IBF as compared to the others. However, the future is completely in Allah’s hands. I may end up being a house-wife. Actually I have always wanted to be a house-wife, but somehow that is not my destiny. Not yet at least.

What distinguishes Islamic fashion from the mainstream apart from observing Islamic requirements for covering certain body parts?

Firstly, I would like to ask what is mainstream? Is mainstream about wearing less and showing more? Isn’t that just propaganda of making women less respectable? Well if we look back into  history, decent orthodox Jewish women wore the veil; proper catholic nuns wore the veil. So when Muslim women wear the veil, why can’t it be justified as part of the mainstream too?

What is the real need for, and motive behind, Islamic fashion?

I can say that exposure, education, affluence and, at the same time, deep awareness and fidelity towards Islamic practices play a very important role behind the existence of Islamic fashion. Muslim women nowadays are exposed to the various current brands, fashion designs, trends, etc. However, they are unable to participate due to the limitations of being a Muslim as the clothes may not adhere to the principles of Shari’a. On the other hand, they also feel that Islam is a beautiful religion. Religion should not be a source of hindrance to adorning oneself, thus this creates the existence of Islamic fashion.

What inspires you the most? Who is your mentor, in Islamic fashion and otherwise?

To be honest, I never had a mentor, be it in Islamic fashion, IBF or anything. Usually what I do is when I want to embark on a certain career path, I will google successful people in that field. Then I will spend some time studying, analyzing and thinking how they achieved their success, and what my abilities are to achieve the same success. I also have to take into serious consideration my role as a wife and daughter. That is how it has typically been for me in my various pursuits. I can say that both my parents have a strong influence in the way I am now. I believe that I have emulated my dad’s hardworking traits, and my late mum’s strong personality.

What are the premier designers in Islamic fashion? Do you think an Islamic fashion brand can ever become a mainstream brand?

To be honest, I am not really aware, or keep myself updated, with the ‘in thing’ in the Islamic fashion industry. This is because I usually buy my clothes from contemporary designers and Islamize them. I don’t see any problems or obstacles for an Islamic fashion label becoming a mainstream brand – as I mentioned earlier, wearing the veil is practiced by both Christians and the Jews too. As long as it is fashionable, prevailing and comfortable to wear, I do not see why it cannot be a mainstream brand.

Friends or family? What is more fashionable?

My family is everything to me. I am a very family-oriented person. No matter how tired or busy or occupied I am, I travel every week to Singapore to visit my dad and my sister (I am based in Kuala Lumpur). My mum passed away six years ago. Even with the pressure of work, I make time to cook for my husband and spend time with him every day. I believe in the saying – blood is thicker than water. So family is more fashionable for me.

Shabana Hasan’s Profile:

Shabana Hasan joined the International Shari’ah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA) as a researcher in December 2010. Prior to that, she completed an MSc in Islamic finance (with distinction) from the University of Durham, UK. She also holds a Diploma in Accounting and Finance from the Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore followed by a Bachelor of Economics (Hons) from the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), with a specialisation in Islamic Economics. Presently, she is the Chief Editor of ISRA Bulletin and the Manager of the Advisory and Research Department of ISRA Consultancy Sdn. Bhd. In her young age, she has contributed extensively to the Islamic finance industry through her regular writings featured in major Islamic financial and mainstream publications. She was an Islamic finance news reader for Capital TV, Malaysia. She is also a Muslimah fashion figure in Malaysia and has been featured in various magazines for Muslimah fashion.