Iqra Shafiq has always had a light inside her for change – a light shining so bright she was forced to Pakistan from the U.S. at a young change in hopes of her changing her ways, setting aside her liberal, American ideals. Back in America and following her dreams, she shares her story about the things she has seen, overcome and how they have made her a spokesperson for the change she always believed in.
At age 12, I felt alone in the world. A world I was discovering — Pakistan. My parents sent me there out of fear that I might be negatively influenced by my American upbringing. They assumed that returning to Pakistan would transform me into a mature person who knew right from wrong. I was scared because this would be my first time living without my parents.
My dad’s friend, a complete stranger whom I called “uncle,” accompanied me on the journey. When we arrived at the airport in Lahore, he left me in the care of another stranger, my grandmother. I was young but compelled to succeed, to prove I was resilient, flexible and adaptable — all the qualities my parents raised me to have. My childhood slowly gave way to self-determination, to fighting to become the person I imagined myself to be despite societal expectations.
I was in Pakistan for three years. I lived with my grandmother, aunt and uncle, yet I felt alone in the world and depressed, without any idea of when I would return home. Later on, I learned my parents’ main purpose was to prepare me for marriage at an early age. For a long time, I felt resentment towards my parents’ decision to send me to Pakistan against my will. I was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Yet, at the same time, I thought if I tackle these struggles and come to terms with cultural barriers, I could define who I am. I firmly believed, and continue to believe, my place was not in the kitchen, I was born to touch the lives of millions.
During my time in Pakistan, I had a new perspective on how people live outside of my neighborhood in Brooklyn: not having access to clean water nor electricity showed me how to make the most of every opportunity, and that success comes from self-determination. This allowed me to become aware of my circumstances and actively pursue my passion of helping women.
Young women residing in Pakistan are expected to cook and run a home. Girls are not expected to pursue education. Even today, many girls who are brought up in the United States are forced to drop out of high school and return to Pakistan to get married at 16. Fortunately, this was not the case for me; I was able to come back to the United States and further my education.
It was not an easy conversation with my family; I had to fight for what I believed in. I was a recipient of a full scholarship to attend Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because my parents were embarrassed to tell people I had dreams that touched the sky. Instead, I attended City University of New York, like all good Pakistani girls from NYC do. Still, this helped evolve my personality. I learned through my peers that I will always have struggles, but how I choose to overcome them will determine my future.
Throughout my time at City College, I have been an active member of the Urban Mentoring and Achievement Network (UMAAN), previously known as the Black Male Initiative at City College. By attending different events through UMAAN, I have learned how important it is to give back to your community. It is not easy living in New York, especially when you don’t know the language, laws and culture. It is very important to use the skills you gained to help others in their time of need. That experience and opportunity has led me to my current position as the program coordinator for the Muslim Community Network (MCN).
At the MCN, I run a program called MY NYC, which empowers the next generation of leaders by providing leadership skills in a hands-on interactive environment and developing their confidence and identity as leaders. It also helps them to initiate projects that address community and social justice issues. This program has given me the opportunity to work with young women who want to be leaders. They want to achieve their dreams but do not have the resources. I have seen, first hand, how a private Islamic school in Brooklyn will not encourage its female population to go explore and discover the various opportunities available to them. MY NYC has given them a platform to discuss issues that are taking place in their community. Working alongside MCN, I am able to provide them with different internship opportunities, and show them the importance of having a voice within your community no matter one’s age, gender or religion.
Growing up post 9/11, my parents forbid me to talk about my religion. I was unable to tell anyone who I really was. MCN taught me how to accept a part of me that my parents were to afraid to show. I learned to be proud of who I am and where I came from. My work as the program coordinator doesn’t end once I am off the clock. Only a few years ago, I was a girl whose parents didn’t approve of her dreams, but today through numerous conversations, I am an advocate for women’s rights with my parents supporting my work.
I fought the world that attempted to influence my parents for nearly a decade, now I fight for my students’ rights. I went from being someone in need of help to someone who now gives a helping hand to someone in need. I have learned never change who I am. Students often feel they have no opportunities to succeed and must continue in the ways of their culture. I also was subjected to these norms, but through self-reliance and knowledge I made my way into a world full of opportunity. I believe and hope the impact I have on young women’s lives will help them achieve many great things.