Salaam Naveera! Can you describe how you first got into tech? What originally sparked your interest?
I have always loved the tech field. And I love to learn. So even when I wasn’t actively learning with a career in mind, I was learning something or other. I remember I learnt to make animations using PowerPoint for my toddler. Later I learned software like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign etc. on my own.
Towards the end of 2016 I started learning programming. I am a big champion for women, especially mothers, staying at home but I also like women to be able to have a career, especially since in many fields having female professionals is absolutely necessary. For example, medical professionals, teachers etc.
In my mind an ideal profession for a woman is the one where she can work from home, or have very flexible hours, where she can observe her hijab and so on. Fortunately, many careers in tech are an ideal way for women to work while taking care of their families and home. So, once my kids had grown beyond the baby or toddler stages I seriously focused on exploring different fields within the tech industry and started my learning journey.
What is your learning process? Both for tech and for Islamic sciences
While I liked the backend logic part of apps, I still wasn’t very keen on the front end part. That was the time I discovered chatbots which are basically web apps sans front end. And I realized that I liked making bots and automation more than regular web apps. So, I focused on that and learnt some more tools, acquired some more skills and fast forward three years, Alhamdulillah, I am where I am.
I am currently learning data science. And some day I may use it professionally but for now I am just learning it for the sheer pleasure of it. I am also learning React and progressive web apps. I am also very much interested in wearable electronics and IoT so sometimes when I want a break from programming, I make a small project here and there with these technologies.
I say about myself jokingly that the thing I can do the best is learning ? And perhaps teaching ?
As for my Islamic learning, that is a never-ending journey Alhamdulillah. I started getting serious about Deen when I was around 20, Alhamdulillah. Since then I have always tried to increase my knowledge. But one thing which I was really passionate about was learning Arabic, so I could understand Quran in its original glory, and unlock all the treasures in the form of classical books.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t enrol in any full-time institutes as my kids were still young and I couldn’t find any one around me who could teach me Arabic at my own time. I almost gave up the hope that I would be ever able to learn Arabic.
In 2013 I discovered the videos of brother Asif Mehr Ali teaching Madinah Arabic books. and I knew that this was the resource which I was looking for. I started learning Arabic, I still am. But what I never knew was how much learning Arabic will bond me to Quran Alhamdulillah!
To help others who are in the same boat as myself, I have shared my complete Arabic learning journey along with all the books and resources I have used on my website Pathway to Arabic. So, others can also self-learn Arabic and can finally feel the sweetness of understanding the words of Allah directly.
I have also started a sort of self-learning course on theory of Tajweed. You can learn more about it on my blog.
What experience do you have working in tech? Can you describe your current role?
Because I want to work from home and because I have an entrepreneur mindset (as opposed to a job mindset) I have never applied to work for anyone. I started as a freelancer web designer. Later I founded my own company Creative Melon where we specialize in building business automation and bots. But we also develop web apps and eLearning solutions.
How do you feel as a Muslim woman in tech?
I don’t feel any different that any other person out there. Sure my dress is different and my conduct is slightly different (not shaking hands with male clients for instance) but Alhamdulillah I have never faced any problem because of that.
One big reason is that we have a very good social structure in South Africa where people respect each other’s values and religion and try to accommodate as much as they can. People here go out of their way to provide Muslims with salaah facilities or make women in hijab/niqab feel comfortable. Alhamdulillah for this beautiful country.
What advice do you have for Muslim women entering your field?
Nothing really except that we need to stay true to our selves and our values, no matter where life takes us.
Do you think more Muslim women should get into tech? Why or why not?
While I am a tech loving person, I don’t feel that everyone should just enter the tech field or that the other fields beside tech are not good enough. And while I love programming and my kids have learnt to code, I don’t agree with “coding for everyone” movement either. Humanity’s greatest strength is its diversity. We need original thinkers and creators in every field. So Muslim or no, women or no, I would advise everyone to play to their strength.
What is something in your journey that you wish you did differently?
Nothing really. I made my fair share of mistakes like everyone. But I don’t regret the mistakes. I learn from my mistakes and believe that they are an integral part of the learning journey. I take courage from this beautiful hadeeth:
إحرض على ما ينفعك واستعن بالله ولا تعجز
Strive for that which will benefit you, seek the help of Allah, and do not give up. (Muslim)
To remind myself of this every single day, I have pasted a printout of this hadeeth next to my table. ?
What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?
My husband, He has been my pillar of strength since the beginning. He is the one who pushes me outside my comfort zone, and who makes me believe in myself. He inspires me and challenges me. And he consoles me and mentor me. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything without him.
Also, my kids who have been extremely helpful and supportive, not only in my learning or when I was trying to carve out a career for myself. But in every sphere of my life. And I am extremely thankful to Allah for all of them. Masha Allah!
How do you balance work, personal life, charity work, and unschooling without getting burned out?
With discipline, hard work and lots of support from my family. I am huge fan of planning my days, but not too rigidly. We live a simple and minimalistic life so maintaining my house and household chores doesn’t take a huge chunk of the day. We start the day really early. I have cut down distractions but still spend some time doing what I like to do.
But my days started to become really productive when I learned to harness the power of small chunks of time throughout the day. I was amazed to discover how much I could accomplish by doing some focused work for 10-15 minutes. And how much time I was wasting by not using small small chunks of time here and there. And lastly by letting go of perfectionism.
Please describe your family’s charity work.
Help SA is not a “charity” organization, not in the contemporary meaning of the word at least. We believe that giving charity or giving free stuff over and over is the worst thing we can do for our fellow human beings. It kills their dignity, their self-esteem, their pride in themselves and eventually, void of these noble characteristics, these people become a burden on the whole society rather than being a functional and beneficial part of it.
We believe in empowering people. We believe in helping them to help themselves. We believe in freeing them from “taking” and help them be the “givers.”
And our inspiration in this mission is Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him).
Once a man came to the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him), and asked for help since he had no food to feed his family. Messenger Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) asked him if he had anything worthwhile in his house. He replied with the name of a few household items like a bowl, a blanket etc. Messenger Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) asked him to fetch those. Once he did, Messenger Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) asked people around him if anyone wanted to buy these. A person bought these things (unobtrusively paying a higher than market price).
Messenger Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) used half of that money to buy some flour and instructed the needy person to deliver it to his family so they could prepare food. With the other half of the money he bought the blade of an axe, fashioned a handle for that blade with his blessed hands from a nearby tree and told that needy person to go and cut wood from the forest and sell it and to report back in a week or a fortnight. The needy man came back in the fortnight, happy with his circumstances and enough food and money to sustain his family comfortably.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any NPO around us who was working towards empowering people rather than giving them free stuff so we set up our own.
Secondly, we didn’t agree to the operating model of today’s non-profit organizations where a huge amount of donated money is consumed within the organization under admin costs. So, we made Help SA a self- sustained organization, run completely on volunteer basis. Every penny we may receive in donations is used in the work itself and not a bit is used by Help SA itself, be it admin costs or anything else.
Naveera Ashraf – Muslim, student of Quran, unschooling mother, autodidact, programmer, student of data science and Blockchain development, sourdough baker, vegetable gardener.