31/07/2014 Durban Amira Osman an organiser at the Architect conference. PICTURE: SIBUSISO NDLOVU

Durban - Amira Osman is a woman at the top of her game. She’s associate professor in architecture at the University of Johannesburg, a respected researcher, an authority on housing and she has been in Durban for several months heading up the scientific committee for the International Union of Architects World Congress, that ends today (Thursday). Her CV is impressive.

I ask her the secret of her success in a male-dominated industry, hoping she will say how she blazed a trail for women and how she would like to see more women breaking through the glass ceilings of the buildings they have designed. And how the industry needs more women to cater for the needs of their sisters. With National Women’s Day coming up, she could be the perfect person to give advice.

But she is having none of it.

“I don’t like people to notice that I am a woman,” she says. “In fact when I was asked to write an article about women in architecture, I turned it down. I like to think I have served my profession and the community well and that I have represented the principles I stand for well, regardless of the fact that I am a woman.”

Women, she argues, are sometimes responsible for their own lack of advancement.

“A lot of the time, women hold themselves back. In my career, there have been certain challenges I have faced as a woman architect and researcher, and also as a black woman, but there have also been opportunities, which I have harnessed.”

Osman came to South Africa from Sudan in 1998 and joined the predominately white Afrikaans male department of architecture at the University of Pretoria. In a changing and newly-democratic South Africa, one would think she would have faced resistance, but the environment proved to be one in which she grew and flourished.

“There were challenges, times when it was not easy and there were certain people I could not communicate with, but overall, the university gave me opportunities for growth and I developed lifelong friendships. By the time I left in 2010, I enjoyed incredible support from colleagues, particularly Schalk le Roux, Roger Fisher, Karel Bakker, Finzi Saidi and Ora Joubert. My time there was phenomenal.

“I joke that as a foreigner and a black woman operating in post-apartheid South Africa, I sometimes had to work more than others to get recognition. I have had people ask me what I could possibly know about housing in South Africa when I am not originally from here. I have had to work hard to establish my credibility and navigate my way around these obstacles.”

She says women often impose restrictions upon themselves because they have a perception of how society expects them to behave. They think they are not supposed to be ambitious or be in leadership roles. But there is a place for personal growth and success, while honouring traditions.

Osman admits she is a traditionalist at heart, she says. She is a wife and homemaker, as well as an academic. Her husband Elbashir Osman is a surgeon, and she is an active member of the Sudanese community in Gauteng.

“We have certain traditions in the community and at home, and I like to observe them. My husband is very supportive of my career.”

She hopes the congress, hosted by the South African Institute of Architects, has inspired vision among delegates.

“The way South African cities are today was conceptualised by architects, planners and other built environment professionals in the apartheid era.” To move into more integrated, reimagined and restructured cities would take vision.

“This congress offers us opportunities. Our new future needs to be planned meticulously and architecture is key.”

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