Farmida Bi is an Islamic finance specialist at Norton Rose and, according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, one of the most powerful British Muslim women in the country. She speaks to the IBA about the challenges she faced in her journey from young Pakistani immigrant to leading corporate lawyer and community leader.
By Rebecca Lowe
A second-generation Muslim from Pakistan, Farmida Bi was expected to marry a first cousin and devote the rest of her life to her children and husband. Instead, she left home for Cambridge University and gained a law degree before entering the world of commercial law with firms including Clifford Chance, Denton Wilde Sapte and Norton Rose in London, where she is currently a partner.
In doing so, she overcame the vicious racism of 1970s Britain, distanced herself from her family and culture, and created a deep rift between her mother and aunt that never healed.
She did all this, she says with measured understatement, because she was a ‘peculiar child’.
‘I was very bookish,’ she adds. ‘I think I got a lot of my values and my cultural references from literature rather than from the people around me. And I knew pretty early on that I wanted a different sort of life to the one that was being clearly mapped out for me.’
For years, however, Bi viewed this different sort of life with an outsider’s eye, neither traditional Muslim nor integrated Westerner. The product of a ‘very loving, supporting family’, the ambitious youngster stepped out into a world where people shouted racist abuse from passing cars and vandalised her windows.
But gradually, as society became more tolerant over the following two decades, her sense of cultural detachment dissipated. ‘I remember working on a deal involving a Pakistani client where people thought it was acceptable to talk about our clients as "Pakis",’ she says. ‘I don’t think anyone would feel they could do that now. I think there has been a deep shift in people’s attitudes.’
The ease of Bi’s integration stems partly, perhaps, from her lack of religious conviction and ‘progressive values’. For her, being Muslim was simply one facet of a complicated identity, far less important than being either British or Pakistani. After the events of 9/11, however, the climate changed. ‘People like George Bush’ established an agenda which was asking her to walk away from her Islamic heritage, something she felt unwilling to do.
Her reaction to the 7/7 bombings in London was more visceral and intense, she says. This attack was closer to home, geographically and culturally. The people came from Pakistani backgrounds, grew up in families like hers, shared parts of her culture and identity. Amid the anger and confusion, Bi decided she needed to take a stand – and created the organisation Progressive British Muslims (PBM).
‘After the 7 July bombings in London, there seemed to be nobody speaking out for people for whom Muslim identity was important, but was not all that they were.'
Partner and Islamic finance specialist, Norton Rose
‘I was really worried by the fact that after 7 July, the only sort of Muslims we saw in the media tended to be men with beards, who were not at all reflective of British Muslims that I knew – people like me, for whom their Muslim identity was important, but it wasn’t all that they were. There seemed to be nobody speaking out for people like that.’
For Bi, the British media was – and remains – a constant frustration, over-simplistic and polarising in its search for the pithy one-liner. As the terms ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ became ever-more conflated with ‘tolerant’ and ‘repressive’, or ‘liberal’ and ‘extremist’, PBM became a useful tool for the moderate majority to have their voice heard on issues ranging from politics and warfare to sexism and women’s lib.
Regarding her own journey to the upper echelons of corporate law, via Clifford Chance, JP Morgan, Cleary Gottlieb, Denton Wilde Sapte and, finally, Norton Rose, Bi is adamant that her religion has never stood in her way – perhaps because she has never viewed it as incompatible with Western values.
‘The idea that life is a choice of alternatives rather than an ability to combine different elements of yourself is just a false view of the world,’ she says. ‘I can be a Muslim and I can be British and I can be Pakistani and a thousand other things. And I think they’re all complementary.’