Rehmah Kasule: The Journey of a Woman Entrepreneur from Uganda
Who is Rehmah Kasule?
The last born in a family of twelve, Rehmah Kasule comes from Gomba, a small village in central Uganda. Being the last born, she was loved by her parents and siblings. At the age of eight, her father died, and that is when life began changing for the young girl.
At that time, her mother was a house wife and had never worked before. In her culture, once your husband dies, it is automatic that the widow is taken over by her husband’s brother. However, Rehmah’s mother refused and this was the beginning of her troubles. She didn’t want to be a third or fourth wife and knew her children would not have the kind of life she wanted them to have. Though she wasn’t highly educated, she started working to fend for her family, selling all kinds of things and she managed to take her children to school.
Where it all began
At the age of 12, Rehmah went to live in the city with her elder brother. It was her first time to go to the city. To her, this is where she learnt her first big lesson in life. She was enrolled in Nabisunsa Girls’ School for her secondary education. Coming from a village school, she didn’t know any English and wondered how she would compete with girls who had spoken English all their lives.
For some time she kept to herself until she decided to talk to a classmate who started teaching her the white man’s language. She went on to excel and was the best debater in the region at the time. She gained confidence and this, she says, was the beginning.
Along the way, she read A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford, a book that transformed her life as, from it, she gained hope about life. “When you have hope things can change”, she says. She focused on her studies and proceeded.
At university, she majored in Fine Arts. She remembers choosing it thinking it would be easy. But she was to be proven wrong: classes ran from morning to evening, during which she was required to stand for long hours while painting. She also had to carry her boards, paint and brush every day from her student hostel to her University which were far from each other. All this built her resistance as she was later to be one of three to get a first class degree at that time – another transforming experience for her.
Rehmah the entrepreneur
A few years later, with no money or networks and little experience, she and four friends quit their jobs, to start their own business. The others would eventually all go back to formal employment. Rehmah continued. Her business, Century Marketing, has been running for over fifteen years now. This didn’t come easy and involved going back to school to upgrade and gain more skills. But after ten years of running her business, she realised she had not failed, which meant she was doing something right. Inspired by this, she started CEDA International – for the development of leadership and entrepreneurship skills of youth and women.
According to her, many young Muslim girls are struggling, wondering – “If I dress like this, will I get a job, will I find a man to marry me”? They need role models to see that they can make it: to balance home and work and still be successful at both.
However, in 2012, she started a program specifically for Muslim boys and youth. This was after realizing that men were being left out and people kept asking who would marry the women if they were empowered – men are allies, after all, in the same struggle. Rehmah is the type to put her beliefs in practice: a youth centre was set up for Muslim boys, where they develop soft skills like self discovery, communication, goal setting, and vocational training like hair dressing, catering, art and craft and community engagement. There is also the Rising Stars Mentoring Program for secondary school girls, and Uni Action, set up for university girls, Executive Coaching for women in employment and WEDI – a Women Entrepreneurship Development Initiative.
Her identity as a Muslim woman
Rehmah was born in a Muslim family. She doesn’t remember facing any challenges as a result of her being a Muslim, while growing up. What she remembers though is being told not to eat in any Christian home in her village, that the families were dirty – with dogs sniff ling into their dishes and rearing pigs. She learned to judge Christians by that, while she felt Islam was “clean”, especially with the many times one is required to wash in a day. However, this perspective changed when she joined secondary school which was a Muslim school but embraced all denominations and none were considered “dirty” as she had grown up hearing. As a matter of fact, she recalls, her culture as a Muganda had more restrictions towards women than her religion. Culture would dictate that a woman doesn’t sit like this, talk like that, eat this or look at people right in the face while talking to them. Such restrictions rid women of their self-confidence. Islam didn’t have any such restriction on women; restrictions were on both men and women.
However, growing up in a Muslim family, one would be judged for not veiling with a hijab. You would be looked at as a rebel and not fitting in the community. In this regard she always felt she was being forced into something she didn’t want. Nevertheless the day came when she decided that she wanted to wear the hijab. It gave her affirmation about her religion. While being respected more as a woman for wearing the hijab has reinforced who she is as a person, a strong self and a practical sense is what shines through her work and words: “In the end, out there, people don’t judge you for what you wear but rather what you say or your character. Life is what you make it.”
Rehmah Kasule is a married mother of two daughters – her reason to focus on girls. She is the author of from Gomba to the White House, a book about her life, what she has done and the tools she has used to get where she is. At a meeting organised in recognition of Muslims from around the world who have empowered other people, she met President Obama, something she remembers as an affirmation to her.
“Your background doesn’t shape your future, you have the power to design your destiny”, she says: she, who believed in herself and made it.
First published in Women in Islam Issue 1 (2014)