Exchange student Huda on uncovering the beauty of Pakistan

Huda, an exchange student from Pakistan in the Carolinas this year, was selected by the US Department of State to attend this year’s Civic Education Workshop in Washington DC.  The selection was based on her essay describing her view of the right of women in Pakistan; the program is competitive and it is an honor to be chosen.

In the essay, Huda describes the traditional path set forth for women:  at birth the family is sad to have a girl.  Females are not allowed to attend school, and at the age of 13 become the “honor” of their male relatives.  That means they are expected to be silent and obedient, they do not leave the house without a male relative escort, and marriages are arranged.  Huda describes this path as a cycle passed from generation to generation through societal expectations and reinforced by law.

Her family takes a more modern view, so Huda looks at it from the outside, though with an insider’s compassion.  As an exchange student in the US, she enjoys the freedom and expression of wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  You could not easily pick her out from her group of American high school friends.  In Pakistan, she appreciates and values that wearing a hijab represents modesty and respect.

Ironically, she has observed that a hijab worn here in the US can make people uncomfortable or even afraid.  It can spark a misunderstanding based on “if you’re a Muslim, you might be a terrorist.”  It almost seems as comically wrong as the stereotype that people only ride camels in Pakistan, except that it isn’t at all funny.  The Muslim faith teaches the same core messages as the Christian faith, messages integral to the mission of global peace:  try to be a good person and be respectful of one another.  As Huda summarizes, “politics are not the same as religion”.

It is also quite dramatic for a girl to wear jeans and a t-shirt in Pakistan.  “People might act like she is doing something wrong and speak badly about her family. “  Even if a family may consider it acceptable, the gossip pressures the family to conform to uncomfortable and restrictive expectations.

This peer pressure isn’t limited to clothing.  During a recent discussion Huda led, the Pakistani participants were encouraged to speak openly.  One girl stood up and shared that her brother doesn’t allow her to attend school.  The brother, who was there, then surprised her as he stood and announced that he does believe she should receive education and opened up that path for her.

Huda sees light at the end of the tunnel.  There is much beauty to enjoy in Pakistan.  She describes her people as “passionate”.  She can’t name a favorite food because she loves them all, and she describes customs around guests as amazing.  “Whether it is every day or once a week, it’s like preparing the house for a festival”.  Huda values the culture’s emphasis on being respectful of one another, stemming from their Muslim faith.

There are many things to keep and enjoy about Pakistani culture.  Huda identifies equality for women as an issue that needs to evolve so that Pakistan can develop properly.  She recognizes that she might not be able to change the thoughts of all adults, but that it is possible to break the cycle for upcoming generations.  To take a stand for equality is supporting her own honor and dignity, as well as theirs.   It is each person’s responsibility to make a difference in their own social circle, to educate and support, and to work towards equality within the law.  Her goal is to become a social worker, to be an example to others to not be afraid to take a step forward for Pakistan’s future.