Sofia shares her personal journey on reconnecting with her Pakistani cultural heritage. She came to the understanding that, while identity can be complex, there is beauty within the metamorphosis of change. Her story sends the powerful message that failure is often a symptom of progress, and that self identity is constantly evolving. This story is part of MALA’s scholarship essay contest. To see more scholarship essays, click here.
Henna trees begin as small shrubs; ellipsoid leaves and decorative flowers follow—a beautiful sight in my 7-by-2-foot garden in my parents’ backyard. In South Asian tradition, it is temporary body art reserved for the most joyous occasions, bringing together friends, families, and once, former strangers. My garden reminds me of the constant metamorphosis I undergo – as an individual and as a global Muslim leader. What began as a response to the world’s increasing carbon dioxide levels was now a metropolitan lab of my leadership through my organization stimulating problem-solving and persistence, while encouraging greater cultural cognizance
Seeking to better understand my cultural roots, I spent a summer in Pakistan attending an immersive service learning initiative. Refusing to allow my hard work to wither, I wanted to ensure the survival of my plants during my month abroad. I labored in my garage determined to find the pieces necessary to create a self-watering system using the random nuts and bolts that my dad had deemed useless. For four weeks, my physics teacher and I worked relentlessly, coding a program that could assess soil humidity and appropriately calculate and dispense water to sustain my plants. My patience was tested with frustratingly miniscule coding errors and trial mishaps as I designed and printed a 3D apparatus to make my plans a reality. However, when my twelfth trial worked flawlessly, I realized that success wasn’t that moment—it was that I hadn’t stopped the previous eleven times. Failure was necessary. Growth was inevitable.
I applied this passion for gardening and my knowledge of environmental science to a local school in Karachi and quickly became the resident expert on the topic. I facilitated an effort to plant over 50 perennials and helped students create their own hydration system. This project and the act of gardening with others was a paramount experience in my own personal growth. It was during these moments with other Pakistanis—when Anisa playfully exposed my mediocre Urdu-speaking skills and Aly’s mother cooked me authentic Pakistani dishes—that my limbic system rekindled old networks of my Pakistani self that I had left untouched for too long. While my hands were planting seeds in Pakistani soil, new relationships and service reinvigorated my long-forgotten cultural heritage.
When I returned home, I was excited to find that my hydration system had worked—a manifestation of the same skills I worked to teach in Karachi: perseverance and problem-solving. Through this form of empowerment through leadership, I had confidence that the students would continue to grow just as the shrubs would. Alongside the gardening project in Karachi, I worked with students to create an organization called “Bringing Stories Together” to serve as a forum for environmental preservation and cultural development. For all, including these students, growth requires loss, and in less favorable moments of change, I believe in the power of art and literary expression to promote understanding and healing. The organization, therefore, uses environmental science and sustainability practices, as well as expression through Pakistani dance, music, and writing to continue to nurture the relationships beyond the garden we created.
We continue to learn from each other through our stories, the way we did when we were connected through the very dirt beneath us. My organization fostered fearless Muslim scientists and culturally-conscious artists, never yielding to seemingly unsolvable issues, but rather persevering with unbridled curiosity.
I see henna differently now. While it fleetingly graces one’s hands, it has imprinted me permanently. Gardening has grown beyond an artistic passion to a manifestation of my leadership within a scientific and cultural arena as a female, American Muslim.
Although living in a drastically bipolar world has often tempted me to veil my faith in an invisibility cloak, my faith is not determined by any activation switch that only triggers in the presence of my mosque; rather, Islam has been a constant source of guidance, allowing my daily life to be a manifestation of an ethic that has guided my leadership to this day: conviction. For too long, I had been under the impression that the negative connotations that magnetize towards Muslims would continue to produce and feed the omnipresent atmosphere of hatred and distrust towards the misunderstood Islamic faith. However, since 9th grade, I have participated in national poetry publications that all focus on Islamic ethics and values that non-Muslims often overlook, such as undying humility or ceaseless compassion.
Through local and national poetry contests, I have allowed for the inextricable intertwining of my secular and religious worlds, forming a harmonious and balanced lifestyle. Using my poetry as inspiration, today I am the Editor-in-Chief of the student newsletter that not only publishes the achievements of the youth within the Mosque, but also stories in which students have transcended the negative connotations that others may have initiated towards them.
Today, I no longer consider myself as solely American, or only Muslim, or only a scientist or only an artist, but rather I see myself as a beautiful canvas, brushing strokes of my passions and religious identity every day. I do not see myself as only being Muslim when I attend my prayers, and then converting back to American when I leave; instead, I live within two worlds that are always inextricably intertwined by threads that have grown stronger and stronger as I have matured.
Although I am only 18, my ethics, values, and beliefs as a Muslim and as an American have further nurtured by identity and replenished it to reach a state of beautiful balance. My trip to Pakistan was a scientific and cultural representation of a mentality metamorphosis; after attending camp, I didn’t see myself as an individualized identity, but rather as a compilation of my religion, culture and passions, none of which should be disregarded. Today, I am the hyphen between the American and Muslim identity I try to embody at all times.