“Good luck for your stay in America” I heard.
“I will be safe!“ They heard.
“You never know, if Trump gets elected” came the reply.
“Oh well, then I guess I will be back sooner,” said I.
And we all laughed.
It’s hard to believe that a political joke enjoyed just 4 months ago, turned out to be a reality.
I started my journey in New York this past August to pursue my dream of psychology at the school I most idealized, The New School for Social Research. As a woman coming to the US from Pakistan, I knew I had a lot of challenges to face, but what kept me going was the academic value this experience had for me and my country. Just like everyone among the very competitive pool of Fulbrighters from Pakistan and around the world, I was overwhelmed at each stage — United States of America (the global, collective dream), New York City, The New School. It was like being a White European Man, all of a sudden, with access to power and prestige.
This did not last long. As I began my journey, I first realized that I am unable to visit my family at my discretion. Was I stuck here? I can’t go back because of my scholarship regulations? Stuck in New York until my degree finishes! Making my way through the time difference, language barriers, culture shock, I realized that my life was changing radically.
The way girls are brought up in Pakistan is very protective. Many of the things I have already learned in US are not considered to be okay or normative in my culture. For example, going to school or work in Pakistan, a female is always accompanied by someone believed trustworthy to guard the dignity of a woman. From simple things such as picking up groceries, to the more complicated, like surviving a housing scam, defining a new life style, being completely independent, and adjusting to culture shock, I was going through a lot! I felt a sense of lack, of lostness. It was not the culture, language, food, family or the lifestyle that I was missing. I was missing my Pakistani identity. I could not relate to what I was doing, because I had never done it. I had never learned to use maps to navigate my way around and now I found myself lost in the subway. I had never learned that losing my way meant finding another all by myself. Though I did not give up, I was still looking for an identity, a vision, I could relate to.
In this time of turmoil, I learned about myself more than anything else. Despite this destabilizing experience, I was excited to meet my professors, most of whom I had only read about. Yet learning more in the field I am passionate about was at times more than I could take. I did not know how to express what I felt. Some classes even left me depressed. When I learned that we have a natural inclination towards prejudice, stereotype and discrimination against out-groups, I felt weak, harassed, insecure and vulnerable because I was a woman, a Muslim and a Pakistani. Although I was never a target of discrimination, I felt it deep inside.
This fear increased exponentially as we got closer to the election. I would walk down the street without making eye-contact due to a fear of being recognized as a south Asian with big eyes. I spoke less to hide my accent. I covered more, due to the color of my skin. I interacted less, because I felt small. I used less public space, because I was a woman. I never went to a mosque, for fear of being seen. I hid my identity, already in disarray, because I was ashamed.
This amplified to a peak on Tuesday when Trump won. The night of 11/8, I was so upset I barely did a thing and could not stop myself from wondering if I would wake up to a Trump presidency. What if the first thing in the morning would be Trump, giving his presidential speech? I had not realized until then that what I had been joking about with my peers back home was about be my reality and that I will live it for the next two years.
More than anything, Trump’s victory has evoked fear. We are all familiar with his fascist, sexist, misogynistic ideas. The more I think about it as a foreigner, the more I believe that America is moving back in time to when the Civil War began. And this time, it’s not just African-American lives who are insecure, but everyone. From white to black. Everyone is equally vulnerable because aggression has been evoked explicitly. The freedom of speech has turned into a license to hate speech.
As much as I felt threatened after Trump’s victory, I realize that it is time to be bigger and better than I am right now, to refuse to shrink or make myself small. There is no point in being afraid and packing my bags to go home safe. It is time to rise from self-oppression to bravery. It is time that I over-power my helplessness and do what I can with what I have: My mind. I cannot change the president of the United States. I cannot change the fact that our minds are inclined towards discrimination. I cannot change the culture, lifestyle and language of my host country, or any country for that matter. But what I can do is to rise through this and focus on making a meaningful impact in my daily life.
Though I feel insecure at many levels, I have started believing more than ever in what I have been doing in Pakistan for the last two years: My Voice Unheard is an initiative trying to bring a counter-narrative to the uni-dimensional image of Pakistanis and Muslims around the world through story-telling and self-expression. I started this initiative because I felt that the world needs to know who the majority of Pakistanis are. They are hard-working, happy, hopeful, determined and resilient. But this is not what main-stream media tells the world. Now, after the elections, I feel a renewed need to bring a positive narrative from people of all ethnicities and religions and to have a platform where diversity can be celebrated and not denigrated.
I believe in the power of pragmatism and that everyone has a role to play. Some people express themselves by protesting outside, some people through writing, some contribute by being by-standers. To me, after successfully running My Voice Unheard in Pakistan, I set myself to a new mission in US — to share this platform for all voices unheard and bring a counter-narrative through story telling. To encourage people to think about their identity and express it safely, with audiences who have a negative perception about other groups. To call for Muslims in the United States to express their identity, belief and practice, in order to bring a new perspective to individuals who stereotype. I find this valuable and relevant to the time we are in. Where misconceptions and generalizability has led us to empty souls, carrying immorality. My Voice Unheard is for all the voices that are screaming inside, but cannot be heard. With a little effort, I believe we all could have ourselves heard for what is true, among the many lies.
I have felt lucky to have been a part of campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #IamMuslimIamNYC. This isn’t because it’s a pleasing experience, but because we all have the opportunity to make a difference, a small impact that can go a long way. To me, Trump’s victory is not a matter of confronting the population with contrary views, protesting, cursing, asking him to leave, but to be stronger with other individuals and to try to bring harmony to this chaotic world. Today’s times tell us much more about our own behavior, rather than about that of others. But we always take an essentialist path — ignoring everything about our own attitudes and thought process and imagining that the bad behavior defines others, not ourselves. I think this is the best time for introspection, and doing what we can to stay united, sharing one common relation of humanity alone.