I’m a twenty-one-year-old Pakistani Muslim woman majoring in political science, and I have done one thing that Hilary Clinton has failed to do. I became President. Two years ago, I managed to do something that decades of girls have tried to do before me: I became the first female President of the Muslim Student Association at my university. Unlike Hilary, I did not wish to stand out from the crowd; rather, I wanted to identify myself with my various peers in ways more than just my religious affiliation.
My freshman year in high school, the tragic events of 9/11 left me in a situation where I was vulnerable to prejudice and unsolicited labeling as a “Muslim,” and that’s it. I walked through the halls with nothing more to my identity than the veil on my head distinguishing my religious affiliation. As I expected, I was verbally attacked, threatened and harassed. I’ve had claims made against me that I was passing anthrax in the halls by “accidentally” bumping into others and blatant threats made to my face such as “I’m gonna knock that cloth off your head.” For any thirteen-year-old girl, this had the potential of having an extremely powerful negative mental and social impact. For me, I embraced the challenge of having to prove to people there is much more to this girl behind the veil.
I took this opportunity to indulge myself in different activities in the interest of proving to people that I was Muslim, but I was more as well. I joined the creative writing club and became known as the Muslim poet. I ventured into different community service activities, organizing trips to soup kitchens, passing out ribbons on the anniversary of 9/11, hence making me known as the Muslim _________. My junior year of high school, I moved to New Jersey, my eighth move in fifteen years. To other fifteen-year-old girls, this would seem like a frustrating obstacle and having to start all over again. To me, this was a wonderful opportunity to broaden my horizons and enlighten a new group of people that there was something more to me than just being “Muslim.” I immediately engaged myself in various organizations, excited about showing my peers what I was capable of. I became extremely active in Model Congress, Model United Nations, Mock Trial, and got a new title for myself. I was the Muslim “Legal Buff,” partaking in several conferences around the United States, proving to people that yes, I was Muslim, but there is so much more to me than just that. I worked hard my junior year and found a spot on my high school’s IPLE team. Our IPLE (Institute for Political and Legal Education) Team was an opportunity I was given to prove not only to my peers, but on a national level that I was more than just a Muslim. We competed against several schools on a state level on the fundamentals of the Constitution in the “We the People” competition and earned a spot to represent New Jersey on a national level. There, performing in front of distinguished politicians and legal scholars, my team won nationals. I felt as if I accomplished my goal: I showed the world (well the United States, at least) that I was so much more than just a Muslim. I had a potential to influence people on a national level, and it was at this point I realized I wanted to partake in the legal world. There are plenty of Muslim doctors and engineers, but there is a serious lack of Muslim lawyers. I wanted to be able to influence the world, and show the world I was so much more than the label that was etched onto me when I was thirteen years old.
This journey led me to college. As a student at XXX University, one of the most diverse schools in the United States, I thought my challenge was nonexistent, that in the population of 3000 Muslims on campus, someone must have proven to the populace that there is so much more to Muslims than just their religion. While earning my B.A. in political science and remaining active in the pre-law society on campus as well as several other organizations on campus including BAKA-Students for Middle Eastern Justice, OXFAM, The Pakistani Student Association; I reached out to the Muslim Student Association on campus in hopes that I would be able to engage with other individuals who longed to strip themselves of the label that we were engraved with a few years ago. It was then I faced two new obstacles: being a woman, and being a Shiite, which leaves me a minority in the Muslim populace not only at my university, but in the world. I have always been a leader, taking on several leadership roles of several organizations both in high school as well as in college. Now I was faced with a new challenge: I was not allowed to be President of the organization based solely on the fact that I was a girl. This bothered me greatly, not because I seek leadership and I refused to be anything less; but because I was being prevented to engage in a role for something under which I had no control. I then sought to face this challenge. I, along with several others, challenged this at the administrative level. I was also a Shiite, a minority, but I reached out to my fellow Muslims shying away from the label of Shiite, and bringing them closer with the common identities I shared with people. I identified myself as Pakistani with some of my fellow Muslims, to some I was a fellow pre-law student, to some I was a fellow woman. I fought this with great forcefulness, and it ended in the establishment of two separate Muslim organizations on campus. One was revolving around the “wahabi,” or extremist sect on campus that did not allow women to be presidents, and attempted to amend the constitution to prevent anyone from being an executive board member unless they shared the same religious values as they. The other was the more liberal and accepting organization with the name “SALAM,” meaning “peace.” As soon as SALAM surfaced, I became extremely active to the point where I began as a PR officer, and was voted on as Vice President a semester later. Then, my junior year, I was voted on as the first female President of a Muslim Student Association at my university. Not only was I the first female President, but I was good at it. I used all my identities, my creative side, my innovative side, my political side, and incorporated it into running this organization to the best of my potential to the point where the organization was acclaimed by many deans to be one of the most successful new organizations on campus with over 300 active members. I did not stop there. Of course, Hilary did not have the option of forming her own government on the side and staking her claim as President, but through my hard work and successful leadership, I managed to sway in many of the members of the other Muslim organization, hence calling into discussions of coming together as one Muslim organization once again. This too, I managed to do successfully while not budging on the principles that SALAM worked so hard to develop of tolerance and rationalization.
How do you know when you have a grasp on what it means to live in a “postmodern” post-Soviet country? When you have realized that you don’t want to live there anymore. While I was far from having such an “existential” grasp on reality at ten years old, one thing was certain – my friends and I were not optimistic about our future. Just a couple of years ago we all dreamed about becoming pilots, astronauts, and important diplomats. Now, as we watched our parents work two or three jobs simply to make ends meet, we realized the futility of our dreams and high expectations.
Around this time, one of my friends got to travel “abroad” with his parents. I don’t remember just where exactly Andrew went with his parents that year (either Poland or Hungary), but I do distinctly remember his coming back to school after fall break. Wearing new snow-white Nike shoes and a “NY Yankees” baseball hat, he told us of all the amazing things he saw “abroad.” He told us of supermarkets “with like fifty brands of smoked sausage,” all sorts of toys, clothes, and – most remarkably – “no lines.” (We were pretty sure Andrew was making that part up). From this time on we referred to this magical world only as “the abroad.” Naturally, Andrew became the most popular kid in our school; at least until someone else came back from visiting “the abroad.”
So, as one can imagine, my friends and I started dreaming about going abroad someday. First, these were just fantasies. However, we found ourselves in high school still holding on to the same fantasies. And one day, as my friend Ivan was telling us about his cousin’s impression of Germany, I said, “What’s the point of just dreaming about going ‘abroad’? Let’s act like men. Let’s do something about this.” We weren’t quite sure what we were going to do, or what it meant to “act like men,” but it sounded good. Concluding that no matter where we would travel or immigrate, knowing English would help, we all started learning English. The amount of instruction in English we received in the classroom was negligible, so I convinced my mother to pay for private lessons with a linguistics professor at the University.
With time, I learned about international student exchange programs, through which one could come to the United States, and study in an American high school for a semester or two. After applying to several exchange programs, I was selected to a private school in Huntsville, Alabama. I had no idea where exactly Alabama was, or what it was like, but I thought: “Hey, it’s America, right?”
I arrived to Huntsville in December 1994. “America” was nothing like I thought it would be. There were no skyscrapers, no “Broadway” style musicals, no fancy night clubs. Instead, there was a small Southern town, with countless Protestant churches, a mall, and a NASA Space Flight Center – the single most significant local landmark. My host family went to church three days a week, and often invited me to go with them. I did not want to be impolite, so I finally agreed. “West Huntsville Church of Christ” was quite an experience. When at one time I asked my host parent Jim why there were no black people in their church he told me that it’s better for “people to congregate with those who are most like them.” When I told my host parents that I was thinking about moving to the States one day, Linda, my host mother, blushed, and Jim ardently tried to persuade me to go back home to Ukraine and stay there, saying “It’s better for everyone to live in their own country.”
As I now reflect on the six months I spent in Huntsville, Alabama I am thankful that I was too young to fully recognize the deeply-rooted racism, ethnocentrism, and fundamentalism all too often ubiquitous in the socially-segregated South. I learned that the country which I once considered part of the “magic world” was plagued by its own problems, no less serious than the ones back home, and that in some parts of this magic world “freedom and opportunity” were not equally available to a black person or a person with an Eastern European accent. At the same time, having traveled a little across the U.S. while living in Alabama, I fell in love with America, and with the freedom and opportunity one could enjoy here.