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'I'm the first female Muslim funeral director to serve the whole of the East London community'

Hasina Zaman, CEO of Compassionate Funerals in Manor House, does not let her gender, race or religion dictate whose funerals she would organise.

(Photo: Compassionate Funerals)

“I’m not the only Muslim funeral director,” says Hasina Zaman, CEO of Compassionate Funerals in Manor House, London.

“There are lots of Muslim funeral directors for sure, and I think there are probably some female Muslim funeral directors who serve the Muslim community - but I don’t know of any who serve the whole community.”

Hasina began her career 10 years ago, and consciously took the decision to not let her gender, race or religion dictate whose funerals she would organise.

“I wanted to serve a diverse community,” she says. “I don’t just belong to a Muslim community - I’m a practising Muslim, I was born a practising Muslim, but I belong to a bigger community. I’m an East Londoner and I feel very loyal to my identity as an East Londoner.”

Sadly, even in 2012, a Muslim woman couldn’t just decide what she wanted and go and do it, and be judged solely on the work she did. There were, as ever, obstacles. She was told by some men within the profession, that, basically, 'This is not for women, and certainly not for you - you should go off and do counselling, something nice’.

While at the time, Hasina’s reaction was to inform the men that they couldn’t tell her what to do, that it was her life and that they were not the boss of her, she’s is now more understanding.

“I think they just felt it wasn’t something women were cut out for,” she says, “you’re around the deceased a lot and around people in a very bad state. So I don’t know if they were being misogynistic, maybe just protective, thinking it’s best for women not to enter this profession.”

But the idea that women aren’t cut out for death care simply isn't true. Across time and cultures, women have always been responsible for caring for the dead, preparing the dead bodies for burial with their own two hands.

Men did not typically join in until it was professionalised - namely, until they could make money out of it. When it was unpaid, it was a woman’s job.

“You’re absolutely right, before commercialisation or industrialisation this was definitely the women’s job,” says Hasina, “and not just for women who died - if a man had died, a woman had died, a child or even a mass fatality, it was women who looked after the dead.”

Essentially, the entrances and exits of life were female-dominated realms - midwifery is still female-dominated. Women brought people into the world and then saw them out at the end - until funeral direction became a profession.

“Where death care really changed was basically with carpenters,” says Hasina, “because they were making the coffins, then they started setting up as funeral directors and that’s where the shift of power changed.”

Surprisingly, the easiest people to work with when it comes to being a Muslim woman in the funeral industry is, says Hasina, the bereaved. “They don’t care about any of that, they just want to know: can you meet their needs? Can you look after them? In that sense they are the easiest people to work with and for," she says.

What was much harder was working with other funeral directors and suppliers and with peers, who “had an opinion about lots of things”.

“No one ever told me their opinion, and I didn’t want to know,” she says. “My attitude was we’re either working together or we’re not. But I decided not to see it, I decided it’s a difficult job and I wasn’t going to make it more difficult.”

However, people made their opinions known in subtle ways, such as giving her, “really obnoxious prices for products”.

“I’d never heard of the term ‘trailblazing’,” says Hasina when asked about working in an industry dominated by white men, “ I thought, ‘oh god, I don’t want to do all that feminist stuff or make a difference or be a mouthpiece - I want to be left alone to get on with my work’.”

Hasina’s solution was to realise that she was going to stand out whatever she did, and just “let it be easy for people to see me”.

Now, she’s a trailblazer whether she likes it or not - but of her multiple complex identities, she’s always a proud East Londoner.


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