Zareen Islam is a first year information and communications technology (ICT) student at Western Sydney University, majoring in networking. Born in Bangladesh, she made Australia her home when she came to Sydney as a high-school student.
An aspiring henna artist, an entrepreneur at Henna by Zareen and a potential networking expert, she shares her story with W’SUP editor, Ishmamul Haque.
How did it feel moving to a new country?
“I was both scared and excited. I knew I would probably not be seeing my friends for a very long time but my whole family was with me. There was an excitement for new things – a new home, school, friends but also, I was a bit scared because I did not know anyone and worried whether I’d be able to make friends”.
Did you experience a culture shock in your initial years?
“Not really, honestly. I used to speak English in school back in Bangladesh too and was raised on American and Indian tv shows and movies. I was aware of different cultures so it wasn’t an entirely new and unknown (experience). I went to a very diverse school with lots of immigrant kids so I never felt out of place”.
How do you reconcile your identities being both Australian and Bangladeshi?
“I am just me. I love going to the beach and a good barbeque in the summer. I absolutely love sushi. I watch Indian daily soaps and do henna art which is a staple in Bangladeshi weddings. So I guess, I’m just a combination of all cultures I come across. But I do think, that my work as a henna artist is my strongest connection with my deshi (Bangladeshi) roots”.
What is henna art & what kind of things do you make?
“So henna is a dye you get from Lawsonia tree leaves. The leaves are dried, powdered and mixed with essential oils, water, etc. and made into a paste. I work with that paste and make designs’
“Using henna is a big part of South-Asian customs. I work only with 100% natural henna pastes. The organic 100% natural henna is dark green when applied. It becomes a reddish brown or maroon within a day or two and fades away in an orange hue. Stains last for 2 weeks which is longer than chemical pastes and also better for the skin”.
“When I apply henna, I’m actually drawing floral and mandala design patterns on the body kind of like a temporary tattoo. The dye is considered auspicious and symbolises good spirit. So South-Asian weddings usually have a mehndi (Bangla word for henna) ceremony the day before the wedding to bring fortune to the bride”.
“I’ll be at weddings like these, doing intricate Pakistani or Indo-Arabic floral designs on the bride’s hands. I also make personalised candles with henna designs on them and sell 100% organic Rajasthani (a city in India) henna cones and coloured cones for personal use”.
What inspired you to become a henna artist?
“I have always been into art. I loved drawing and designing patterns as a kid”.
“I started doing henna designs on my friends and relatives when I was 13. I soon started doing henna on my relatives at every Eid (major Islamic celebrations). Since 2017, I have been inspired from other artists in Sydney because their work is gorgeous. I started with an Instagram page and now I’ve decided to start a small business on my own”.
You’re also an aspiring entrepreneur selling henna art. How do you manage your work and studies?
“It’s passion, honestly. I try to take more orders when uni is closed. I try to work around a schedule. I try to finish my coursework first and fill my remaining time with art. I think it’s the same for everyone trying to run their own business while studying”.
How are you working now with the pandemic and lockdowns?
“Birthdays, parties and weddings are postponed or very intimate. So those used to be common but now they’re very rare. To be honest, it is kinda bittersweet. I used to work at Maccas (McDonald’s) casually but ever since COVID-19, I had to let go that. I live with my parents and grandparents so I didn’t want to risk them with exposure (by bringing it home from work)”.
“But on the other hand, I’ve innovated by making my own brand of cones and custom henna candles with the spare time. I wish I could get back to uni though. My first year has been spent in my room so I really want to know what uni would be like”.
You’re also a woman in STEM which is a male dominated field. Do you think there is a lack of representation by women in your course?
“I do not know about the whole course. But yeah, I think there are always more boys than girls in a class. I’ve wanted to be a network expert since my TAFE days. Maybe, there will be more girls later on in my course”.
What do you plan to do after graduation – henna art or an IT job?
“Why not both? I think I can do it. It is very empowering to have something of your own beside a job. Specially, if it’s something you’re passionate about. I love doing henna designs and seeing how happy customers are with my handiwork”.
Today’s diversity fest theme is freedom. What does freedom mean to you?
“In this pandemic? Being able to go out again without fear”
“But I think my art sets me free. It gives me financial independence to a great deal because I’m earning from my own business. I get to be my most creative self and say what I want to through my art. It lets me interact with all kinds of people and helps me stay in touch with my roots. That’s freedom to be yourself, I guess”.