Shoot and interview with Salma Haidrani, freelance writer and journalist, by Karina Lax. Part of an ongoing series These Walls Must Fall, focusing on activists and change makers.
Salma caught my attention on Instagram 18 months ago as a celebrated graduate of Sheffield University’s Sociology degree making waves in journalism a short time after graduating. With a prodigious drive and focus, she confidently tackles issues of contemporary faith, identity, sex, sexuality and women’s issues, whilst clocking up a serious number of credentials and awards for her straight talking, entertaining and intellectually researched writing.
Salma also caught my eye by the way she is unashamedly herself; she loves dressing up and looking good, and isn’t afraid to show that alongside her work, and sometimes in her research. With this in mind I decided a straightforward shoot just wouldn’t do, so I approached Salma with the idea of shooting as a full editorial complete with multiple outfit changes, scorpion-like plaits and an interview.
She is styled by Naomi Hodgkin in solely vintage pieces, all stylists’ own. Hair and Makeup by Khandiz Joni, an advocate for clean, conscious beauty (links in left column). Khandiz and Naomi’s involvement in the shoot pushed a consideration for environmental concerns, encouraging a ‘train first’ travel policy, vegetarian catering, lighting on rechargeable batteries charged at home from a green energy supplier, and encouraged simplicity in creative decisions.
Hi Salma. Please could you introduce yourself and your achievements to date?
I’m a 4-time award-winning freelance writer and journalist based in London. I write for a number of titles including Vice, i-D, Dazed, Refinery29UK, BBC Three, Cosmopolitan, Time Out London, HUNGER, Huck, Bustle, Grazia, Little White Lies and more. I’ve won a number of awards for my writing, including ‘Young Journalist of the Year’ at the GG2 Leadership Awards in November 2017 and ‘Best Feature’ at the End Violence Against Women Awards in October 2016. I’ve also been nominated for 14 awards, including the ‘New to Freelancing Award’ at the IPSE Awards in April 2019 and the ‘Media Award’ at the Women of the Future Awards in September 2018. I'm a contributing author of the Amazon and The Guardian Bookshop best-selling ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’ published in Feb ’19. You can read some of my work on my website.
What are your main areas of interest within your writing?
My work predominantly focuses on marginalised communities, contemporary faith, women’s rights, race, British identity, LGBTQ+ issues and social issues
What draws you to these areas, and what drives you to write?
A significant amount of my journalism challenges preconceptions of marginalised communities, from profiling the photo series capturing the fluidity of black men’s masculinity for Vice UK to the man who created the first club night of its kind for queer South Asians’ culture and sexuality to seamlessly co-exist for Time Out London. In such a turbulent socio-political climate, particularly post-Brexit [and Boris Johnson potentially moving into No.10], humanising these communities has never been so pressing. That’s a significant reason what attracts me about my career – I can reach vast audiences who might not encounter the people I profile in their everyday lives.
Can you tell me a little bit about your route into writing and freelance journalism, what you studied at uni and how that influenced your path?
I first got into journalism at uni where I penned a blog documenting what I perceived to be gender inequality on my uni campus. This received a lot of national attention and I won my first journalism award for it at 21. This marked the first time I toyed with the idea of journalism as a full-time career. After my undergraduate studies at University of Sheffield, I was awarded a scholarship to do my MA in Magazine Journalism. Post-graduation, I then freelanced for a number of national titles and have scooped three more awards and 14 nominations to date – the rest is history! It’s such a privilege to write for a living and I’m living proof that your passion can be your career. Though there can be downsides such as chasing invoices and not having a regular salary, I’d be reluctant to trade it in for a 9-5, not least as I can book a last-minute beach hols to Marbella as a post-Ramadan treat, like I did earlier this year!
6: What would be the traditional/ expected route into these areas?
Doing an MA / course in Journalism / someone taking a chance on during your internship are usually the traditional routes. In terms of freelancing, I had an unconventional entry into my chosen career – most people I know who take the plunge to go freelance have usually had a staff job for several years and hone the skills they’ve learnt before making their foray into freelancing. Conversely, I’d finished uni and became freelance several months later. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of getting into journalism though.
5. Who inspires you?
I also love author of Hymens and Headscarves by Mona Eltahaway as she’s championed the voices of Muslim women, particularly those in the Arab world, that are often rendered invisible by the mainstream (she’s long campaigned for a sexual revolution in the Middle East]. It’s surreal that I ended up contributing to the same Amazon best-selling anthology as her this year [It’s Not About the Burqa, out now in a Foyles and Waterstones near you].
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to encounter some incredibly interesting people over the course of my career and those that strive to make differences to their respective communities. Some highlights include Asad Dhunna, who created a space for London’s LGBTQ+ Muslims during Ramadan, a community that’s often ostracised from the mainstream Muslim and LGBTQ+ community, for Munchies. I also profiled the man whose summer camp for trans kids is literally saving lives for Time Out London and the founder of Under the Abaya, the first photobook of its kind to spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s rarely seen street style and challenge misconceptions of Saudi women for Middle East Eye. Artists Erin Aniker and Jess Nash are also committed to diversifying the often middle-class art world – they’ve held some incredible exhibitions, including ‘We Are Here’, which explored what it means to be a British BME artist today.
Your age, background and education give you a voice and perspective that’s been missing. Where else do you see gaps? Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to follow a similar path?
There’s not enough voices that are trans, Muslim, PoC or from working-class backgrounds: after all, research found that at present, journalism is 94% white, 55% male and overwhelmingly dominated by journalists who are privately educated. It’s particularly frustrating that there isn’t enough of a diverse workforce when rampant transphobia, Islamophobia and racism in the press routinely goes unchecked (just take when Stormzy was confused with footballer Romelu Lukaku, for one). Transphobia has run rampant in the UK media too (just take a newspaper running a full page-ads blasting trans rights reforms last October) while Islamophobia has been an ever-present feature of our news for decades (two misleading headlines ran ‘UK mosques fundraising for terror’ and another ran ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’).
There also needs to be much more of a commitment to hire/commission journalists outside of London – I don’t read enough voices from the North of England, for one. In a digital era, it’s surprising and frustrating in equal measures that the mainstream media remains so London-centric.
For anyone wanting to follow a similar path and applying for internships/ pursuing writing opportunities, I’d recommend never taking no for an answer.
What barriers have you come across (imagined or real) and overcome in your career to date?
The most challenging aspect I’ve faced in my career is how women of colour or Muslim women like myself can often be expected to write predominantly on issues affecting WoC/Muslim women. While I’m fortunate to write on the topics I’m most interested in (these include marginalised communities, contemporary faith, race, social issues, British identity, LGBTQ+ issues etc.), for many WoC making their first foray in journalism, they might be expected or tasked with writing these topics alone. We’re just as capable of writing about far-ranging topics, be it, exhibitions, films, fashion, books and more so it can be frustrating at the onset of your career if this isn’t recognised and there’s not enough opportunities available to pen pieces on these. I’d encourage anyone to persist, keep writing on the topics you’re interested in and not to limit yourself.
When I first started out in journalism, I never saw many journalists or writers that resembled me, be it at newsrooms, internships or newspaper columns. Though a number of publications for and by women of colour and Muslim women have increasingly launched in recent years (take the likes of gal-dem and Amaliah), change within mainstream organisations remains slow: research found that at present, journalism is 94% white, 55% male and overwhelmingly dominated by journalists who are privately educated.
There needs to be more of an active commitment within mainstream organisations to encourage those from minority groups, e.g. transpeople or those from working-class backgrounds to believe that a career in the media is within their reach. Even so, it’s still possible to be the change you want to see: I carved out a career I’m incredibly proud of despite very little representation.
Working for yourself and approaching publishing houses takes confidence and self-belief. How do you nurture that in yourself? Does that ever falter, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Journalism is a really tough industry – and freelancing even more so as you’re the only person you can depend on who’ll ensure you get paid this month!
I’d advise avoid comparing yourselves to others – it’s easy to get lost in other people’s achievements, particularly on Instagram/Twitter, but if you reflect on your achievements, you’ll realize how far you’ve come. Taking stock of your achievements is essential too – it’s easy to think you could do ‘more’ but it’s worth taking into account both big and small achievements every month. Invest in a diary or journal and reflect on these in six months’ time.
Though I still pitch ideas to editors, now that I’m a little more established, editors also often commission me, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
Do you feel your image affects your work? What considerations do you make considering clothing and image? (I love that you don’t hide your good looks and love of nice clothes)
I don’t feel that I should dilute my love of eyelash extensions or what colour acrylic nails I want this month to seem more ‘serious’ – the idea that women can be either ‘attractive’ or ‘intelligent’ and not capable of being both is redundant. I love investigating whether beauty pageants still have a place in contemporary British society and whether they’re as progressive as they claim to be (as I did in the June 2019 issue of Cosmopolitan UK), what impact the UK’s first female mosque training scheme might have on women feeling more welcome in mosques across the UK as I did for Stylist Magazine last November, for example, as I do being glam!
What do you have planned for the future?
I hope to continue my commitment to providing a platform for the voices of Britain’s invisible and under-represented communities, particularly in a post-Brexit turbulent socio-political climate. I’m also in the midst of working on a bigger project.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about?
Support independent journalism – a lot of mainstream organisations are owned by unethical companies though you might not tell so be wary of parting with your coin to fund them [or giving them your clicks!]. There’s so many independent publications championing great journalism that are worth giving your ££ to, from Oh Comely, SEASON, Gaffer, UnderPinned and Post Script.
Champion freelance journalists! We’re an ever-growing community that deserve to be valued in the same veins as staffers and to be paid faster – please support Anna Codrea-Rado’s petition calling on mainstream organisations to pay freelancers fairer, better and faster here.
Lastly, success isn’t just about ‘wins’ or ‘likes’ – being successful shouldn’t be entirely determined by what you’ve achieved (though they’re great!) but how you navigate failure and challenges. Some of my greatest achievements include how I worked through an issue or how I overcame setbacks.
See the full shoot here:
A huge thank you to Khandiz Joni and Naomi Hodgkin, and of course Salma.