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NASIMA Sayeed-Mullah cuts a graceful if slightly beguiling figure in her headscarf. But do not be fooled.
Since 2006 Sayeed-Mullah has overseen operations at Absa Islamic Banking.
She started her career as a clerk at Nedbank, where with only a matric certificate she worked her way up to a management role.
She then held positions in various areas in the bank, starting in treasury and derivative operations. By the time she became the operations head she had proved her mettle.
"My roles differed all the time, making it a wonderful experience for me despite the challenges I faced in the early years."
Later in her career she was head-hunted by the then leadership of HSBC Securities.
Today Sayeed-Mullah oversees the day-to-day operations of her unit that specialises in Shariah banking.
Her duty involves implementing risk and governance frameworks, assisting in growing the market share, product development, customer value solutions and managing CSI initiatives. She says her wide experience makes her present job easier.
"At Absa Islamic banking I have worked with youth in orphanages, disabled organisations, running national cancer awareness campaigns and many other CSI campaigns which I found to be very rewarding."
Her office is adorned with various awards she and her team have received over the years.
"I work with a motivated, highly driven dedicated team and a leader who strives to develop people.
"This is the main reason why our team has received many international awards."
Not the one to sit around and not improve her skills, Sayeed-Mullah is studying towards a post-graduate diploma in Islamic finance.
She has completed a one-year specialised course for Absa at the Gordon Institute of Business Science at Pretoria University and holds many other specialised diplomas.
She tells Sowetan that when she first started working it wasn't easy and accessing money to study was not without obstacles to people of colour.
"This did not stop me from grabbing every opportunity to acquire skills from in-house courses," she says.
"In all the institutions I have worked, the single most common trend I noted was that if you take yourself seriously, others will too."
How does it feel to be a head of operations in an environment known to be cut out for men?
The mother of three who is in her 40s sayswomen have to come to terms with the demands of a male-dominated work environment and Islamic banking is no different.
"I am fortunate to be working with a modern, enlightened leader, whose focus is on skills and on adding value, who supports the powerful role that women can play in business and society, if that is their choice.
"I contribute a large part of my success from the support I draw from my husband Yacoob, who over the years realised that I have a desire to develop myself and fully supported both my career and personal goals.
"I hope this helps to dispel the generalisation that Indian or Muslim men have received in the media about Indian or Muslim women being oppressed."
She adds that real men are not threatened by their wive's success regardless of whether she is a professional or runs a spaza shop.
She says that what matters is how a woman makes an impressionin her field of expertise.
"Once people have overlooked my outward appearance - my headscarf - they become more interested in what value I bring to a conversation rather than my being a Muslim woman.
"I do not see the need to adapt my style to how the Western corporate world expects a woman to look and behave.
"I find this liberating and it allows me to focus on my goals without the pressure of trying to be someone I am not."
She says Muslim women in business have a unique opportunity to buck the Western trend of feeling they have to behave more like men to be successful.
"There is no such prerequisite in Islamic banking.
"We can choose how we dress, determine our roles, behaviour and level of work life balance.
"Through these choices we have the opportunity to create our own niche, rather than conforming to what the West considers the prototype of success.
"I hope that through this freedom to choose, we will be able to empower other businesswomen to revert to being less like men in their business lives."