When Firdaus Rahman arrived with her husband to Mobile, Alabama in the 1980s, she found out relatively quickly she could no longer be an English teacher.
Although she and her husband were educators – he a professor at the University of South Alabama – Rahman was finding that teaching English, something she had done for several years in her native Pakistan, was not going to bear much fruit in the deep south.
“People here were going to have a hard time learning English from someone as foreign-looking as I am,” Rahman said.
But Rahman was always good with people. She prided herself on being a strong communicator and her charismatic personality that is always willing to share a laugh or a smile was something she wanted to put to use in a community that probably wasn’t ready to be embraced by someone from her part of the world.
So, she decided to go into real estate.
Rahman worked hard. She studied tirelessly. So, forgive her if she felt no prouder moment than when she passed her exam and earned her real estate license.
She was incredibly excited to start her new career. Her exam score was so good that she assumed there would be agencies wrestling with one another to hire her.
Except that didn’t happen.
“There was a lot of skepticism and it was born from the fear of the unknown,” she said. “Every time I opened my mouth my accent was so different, everybody would stop what they were doing to turn around and look at me.”
On top of that, this was the 1980s. There were unique dress code rules at the time, and one big agency, whom Rahman did not want to identify, refused to hire her – likely because of her background – but used the dress code as a way to say no thanks – since Muslim women believe in keeping their bodies mostly covered and won’t wear skirts, or short dresses or anything without sleeves.
For the record, when Rahman arrived for the interview with the agency, she was wearing a pantsuit – something that is considered more than appropriate as professional business attire. However, the agency representative dismissed her without conducting the interview, telling her that office rules required women to wear dresses or skirt suits. But, looking back, Rahman doesn’t blame the agency.
“These weren’t bad people,” she said. “It was what it was at that time and they were doing what they thought was the right thing. Fair Housing wasn’t really a known thing at that time. Nobody was really talking about it.”
Which shows how long it took for the Fair Housing Act to really have an impact in some places in the country.
“I didn’t even know about it at first,” Rahman said. “So, I couldn’t even use it to help me get a job. So, I just kept trying and trying until someone finally took me.”
That someone was a woman named Carolyn Norman, who was with a real estate agency known as Better Homes and Gardens.
Norman saw promise in Rahman. She felt like Rahman had the right personality to be successful in real estate and brought her on board.
“It was a relief,” Rahman said. “I had studied hard and passed the exam and finally someone was going to give me a chance. I was fortunate to have found Carolyn because she was wonderful and taught me everything I know about real estate.”
Including all there was to know about the Fair Housing Act.
Rahman stayed with Better Homes and Gardens for the next 13 years, making a name for herself in Mobile. Proving to the most ardent doubters in the area that a woman from a different culture could integrate well into an old-fashioned, southern community.
“I think it was personality,” she said. “I have a very friendly personality. I smile a lot. I laugh a lot. I was able to put people at ease right away. But it was a slow process. I earned their trust and confidence, but it took about five years to do that, so it wasn’t an easy go.”
Once she did earn that trust, Rahman’s stock soared. There were agencies – including the original big company – who wanted to hire her away from Better Homes and Gardens.
And with every offer, she politely declined until the late 1990s, when she couldn’t pass up an offer to join Re/Max.
“I’m like the queen over here,” she joked. “But really, they treat me so well. But I’ve had to earn it.”
Rahman has been with Re/Max for 20 years now. She has even seen an influx of other REALTORS® in Alabama who are from her native Pakistan or from India who are succeeding. The South may have been a little late to the party, but they have progressed well in accepting people of differing cultures.
But there’s still room to grow even more.
“People know me now,” Rahman said. “But even now, every time I meet a new buyer or seller, there’s that curtain I have to draw to kind of put people at ease. I think it will always be there a little bit, especially in a community that isn’t as culturally diverse as some others.”
Yes, she’s successful. She’s found a niche. She loves the people she works with. But there is something that still bothers her – and it stems from an incident a few years back.
While giving a speech at a REALTOR® gathering in another Alabama city, (Rahman again asked not to identify it), she was talking about fair housing and cultural diversity as part of Fair Housing Month in April.
And while speaking on the topic, Rahman delved into something else. Something important to her. Religious diversity.
It wasn’t a religious sales pitch by any means. But rather, a comment that people of different religions would be best served in listening and understanding one another rather than being dismissive of one another.
“I was going through each of the protective classes, and when I got to religion, I said, ‘All religions lead to the same ending. It’s like five different roads that all lead to the airport and we’re all going to get to the same destination, just taking a different road,’” Rahman said.
There was dead silence in the room.
“When I finished speaking, these seven or eight women surrounded me and basically said, ‘Don’t you ever say that again. There is only one road and one road only,’” she remembered. “I realized what had just happened. I said ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and they escorted me to the car. They were angry with me. They wanted to make sure I high-tailed it out of town.
“I have some friends who told me that I shouldn’t talk about religion, but I feel very strongly about this. Because we don’t talk about it is why there is such a great misunderstanding about religion and a great intolerance for religion. It is the silent killer of the Fair Housing Act. Not race. It’s religion. Everyone is scared to talk about religion.”
She continued, “Give me an opportunity to tell you what my religion is about. No one gives me that opportunity – even to this day. In the South, no one really wants to talk about it. It’s something that hasn’t really progressed in this part of the country.”
The thing is, Rahman knows it’s not intentional. It’s part of the fabric of the community she lives in. It’s why she still gets that nervous look when first meeting a buyer or seller.
People are trying, she said. Her co-workers and fellow REALTORS® are also aware enough to let her know if something they ordered for lunch or something being served at an event has pork in it so she doesn’t eat it because it’s against her religious beliefs.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the societal norm in her community is to not really acknowledge religious practices, beliefs or celebrations outside of that of the majority.
“There has been some progress and people have realized the differences between religions a little bit,” Rahman said. “But, still, I am expected to celebrate Christmas with everyone and exchange gifts with them, which I do and really enjoy. But even though everyone is aware of my holidays, I don’t even get a happy wish.
“We (Muslims) are the underdogs right now. The Muslim religion is such a loving religion, and no one wants to believe that. They only focus on extremist views, because of 9/11, and that’s it. They don’t want to hear or know anything else.”
Yet despite that, Rahman wouldn’t change the end result. She said it’s been really good, despite everything. She said she’s made some great friends in the business and really loves the people in her community where she has made a home for more than three decades.
But, if at any time, something comes up in her business that doesn’t feel right, something that seems like an intolerance because of her nationality or her religion, Rahman knows she can lean on the Fair Housing Act for support, because the Fair Housing Act definitely makes us stronger.
“If we know the laws, they are not there to ‘get us’ but rather they are there to protect us,” Rahman said. “People think that laws are meant to ‘get us’ or ‘catch us’ or ‘chastise us.’ But these laws are really a protection for not only the buyers and sellers but for us also, the REALTORS® in this business.
“We are able to do our work much more successfully and professionally because of these laws that are in place.”