''...I have barely come across any Indian Muslim woman as a mentor or a friend. So, when I stumbled upon LedBy foundation, I immediately signed up to volunteer for it''
For the longest time, I believed in an individual’s own potential to achieve anything one dreams of irrespective of external factors – social norms or structures based on gender, class, religion, or color. But lately, I have come to acceptance with this massive realization that the underlying assumption of so-called “dreaming big”- being an equal opportunity endeavor itself is flawed and comes with a position of privilege.
Our sense of what is possible in our lives is influenced by what has gone before, a privilege that has been passed onto us by our ancestors. For instance, imagine what individual dreams could look like if they don’t access the internet?
So, I attempted to look back at my journey so far and check on my damn privileges.
"Geniuses are made, not born” - Role of the social environment in shaping a child.
Let me start by giving a glimpse of my upbringing. Now that I look back, I realize I had an exceptional social environment. I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents. My whole childhood was centered and shaped into believing the utmost importance of education, especially for a woman to be truly independent. It was as if generations of lost opportunities to study were being offered to me.
In an environment where my parents moved cities solely for my education, my mom worried more about my education than my brother’s. The family calendar always in sync with my academic priorities made me bound to break the ceiling.
Educational psychologists have long proven the importance of education in the early years. Laszlo Polgar, a pioneer theorist in child-rearing, believed "geniuses are made, not born." Polgár experimented with his daughters with a simple assumption that any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field. He decided to train his daughters in chess. Later, Polgár's daughters grew up to become highly successful chess players.
Unfortunately, this contrasts with the majority of the 70 million Indian Muslim women's households that may not support this. A report from the National Statistical Office reveals the abysmal literacy rate among Muslims and the severity of their academic marginalization in India. It points out that Muslims have the highest proportion of youth (ages 3-35 years) who have never enrolled in formal education.
The double disadvantage: Dealing with stereotypes and prejudices
As I grew up, I was privileged to be surrounded by well-educated neighbors and very inclusive friends. I am lucky to be part of a diverse country that loves to celebrate irrespective of faith. However, I still couldn’t help but observe stereotypical behavior and existing prejudices as a woman and being part of a minority group.
Externally I noticed how my brother and I were the only Muslim in my entire school, how I was viewed as an outsider because of deficient awareness about my community, how it was challenging to get a house on rent, how talking to relatives in Pakistan was a matter of concern or how my patriotism was questioned in subtle ways.
Internally I noticed, how existing prejudices impacted the lives of a woman. I saw how school dress code could take away access to better education for a girl child, how opinionated girls were calm, how females were married off way earlier than males of similar age, how the level of education & career potential of a girl child was always weighed against probability and suitability of finding a groom and innumerable other such social norms.
I turned to media to find out more about my identity, only to reinforce the same stereotypes and prejudices. Mainstream media is filled with articles on Muslim women in India linked to the triple talaaq law or Kashmir. Other cinematic representations around Muslims focused on poverty, illiteracy, and conviction rates.
But the most significant blow for me was the personal realization of not having someone to look up to – a working woman. No females in my immediate extended family, maternal or paternal, are employed. And this brings me to my third point on why representation matters.
Marian Wright Edelman quoted, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Research from around the world has demonstrated a role model effect that has people who look like you, have similar experiences as you do, and come from similar backgrounds can be a source of support in itself.
Role models are undoubtedly an essential part of the development and progress of social identities. According to a study conducted by the Economic Times Intelligence Group in 2015, Muslims constituted approximately 2.7 percent of mid to senior executives in the private sector. The lack of women leaders is even starker, and Indian Muslim women are practically invisible in the country’s workforce.
I have barely come across any Indian Muslim woman as a mentor or a friend. I grew up in Muslim minority areas for a large part of my life. So, when I stumbled upon LedBy Foundation, India's first leadership and professional development incubator for Indian Muslim women, I immediately signed up to volunteer for it. It offered me a straightforward opportunity to volunteer with them to interview 5 Indian Muslim women in the age group of 18 to 30. The conversation with these high-potential Indian Muslim women was extremely special to me.
We connected and laughed over common stereotypes from “Oh! I didn’t realize you were a Muslim. You don’t look like one”, “How do you say this in Urdu?”, “Are you related to Shah Rukh Khan by any chance?”, “Is it that simple, huh? Just say Talaaq Talaaq Talaaq out loud?” “Is it true that you marry your cousins?”, “No offense, but don’t you think it’s a little too harsh. Huh? You are saying you wear hijab willingly” to “So which cricket team do you support?” It was the perfect ifykyk moment I have been longing to share with.
We discussed how there was a stark difference in education and employment status of male and female within our own families, how subtle religion and gender biases gets ingrained both internally and externally and affects equal opportunity, how our talented cousins mulling over migration is more real today than ever, how overly educated working woman is not “marriage material,” how we have to overthink before expressing our views as to avoid attack on our identity and how managing career post marriage and child-birth remains a black box of anxiety.
For a lot of these unanswered questions, maybe we just need a face similar to ours to talk to and seek inspiration. If you feel the same here is how you can support us–
If you know any Indian Muslim women, let them know we exist and they can join us! You can further check the details on our accelerator and fellowship program here
If you want to engage deeply with us, we have 2 full-time paid roles open:
Program Management Associate
Community Engagement & Social Media Manager
For more details on the roles check here. Please note, the last date of apply is 20th Jan.
If you are looking for shorter engagement, you can volunteer with us and sign up here
Closing with a few lines from a Nazm, Aurat that I admire by Kaifi Azmi –
zindagii jehad mein hai sabr ke qaabuu mein nahiin
nabz-e-hastii kaa lahuu kaamptii aansuu mein nahii
urne khulne mein hai nakhat kham-e-gesu mein nahiin
jannat aik aur hai jo mard ke pahluu mein nahiin
uskii aazaad ravish par bhii machalnaa hai tujhe
uth merii jaan mere saath hii chalnaa hai tujhe
Patience will not help you struggle through life.
Blood, not tears, sustains the pulse of life.
You will fly when you’re free and not ensnared by love.
Heaven is not just in the arms of the man you love
Walk unfettered on the path of freedom with me.
Arise, my love, for now; you must march with me.