I can remember the night when I first felt the spark of advocacy. I was wearing shalwar kameez — a traditional outfit that is a combination of a dress and suit — and was seated with my family outside of a market in Karachi, Pakistan. With a cold breeze brushing past our necks, the cups of chai we were drinking warmed us up after a long night. Beyond me, I could hear a familiar rumble of the rickshaws passing by on the dirt roads and street sellers advertising their popcorn, ice cream and samosas.
In a way, the peace and serenity I had at that time felt like a culmination of understanding my cultural identity.
However, I was mistaken in that moment by thinking that romanticizing aspects of my culture meant embracing it entirely. A few moments later I realized these were only a few facets of what makes me Pakistani. While I could appreciate the clothing, food and design of Pakistani culture, I also had to embrace and acknowledge those marginalized within the culture itself.
That night two girls around the age of 10 approached us. Wearing tattered clothes and carrying a stuffed animal soiled with dirt and decay, it was apparent that they lived without a home and on the streets.
“Thorey seh paisay chaiyeh,” they whispered.
“I would like some money.”
“To me, being proud of one’s culture means embracing the aspects and beauty of the memories and traditions of the past, but also respecting and advocating for individuals who can not freely celebrate their culture due to marginalization, poverty, and other issues.”
In response, my family laughed. Rather than embrace the children with empathy, they ridiculed the girls. I was stunned.
However, I quickly realized that my family developed conceptual frameworks to dehumanize the lower class for comfort. As the phrase goes, “Don’t get too involved.”
As I watched the girls silently take the ridicule as if it were the norm, I became emboldened to realize that the opposite is true — it is critical to get involved. It is up to us to utilize our privilege and deal with the uncomfortable, as it is nothing compared to the actual oppression minorities face.
As a result, when I entered UCF, I realized that it was imperative to join cultural organizations and advocate for those who would not have been given a platform otherwise.
When I applied to become president of the Pakistani Student Association in Spring 2020, I felt strongly about making advocacy part of our mission. Specifically, advocating for minority voices and the marginalized voices of the country.
The first events I introduced my starting term included providing a platform for Shia Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims to speak about their persecution and oppression in Pakistan. I rebranded one of the largest events of our organization, Mock Mehndi, due to it being rooted within toxic cultural traditions. These included platforming marriage as a cultural magnum opus compared to other facets that describe our culture much better.
From Mock Mehndi, it became Mock Mehla — a week of events that started with a workshop unpacking the change, an event focusing on the cultural clothing of Pakistan and a speed friending event aimed to unite people wanting to engage with Pakistani culture. In a cultural organization known for its socials and icebreakers, these events differed greatly by addressing taboo and heavy topics that often create tension. But I felt they were necessary to recognize the depth of what it means to be Pakistani.
As advocacy coordinator of UCF’s Asian-Pacific American Coalition (APAC), I wanted to embolden empathy within advocacy. I wanted to focus on topics that were uncomfortable and in the margins, as well as provide a comfortable space to those that may not have been originally familiar with advocacy. In the past, I had not seen as much South Asian representation in the organization, but I realized it was up to me to battle imposter syndrome and apply.
With great leadership, mentorship and collaboration with different affiliates, I learned a critical amount of information and grew substantially — however, I doubted myself every step of the way.
When it comes to leading action and breaking the box of tradition, there’s always uncertainty, but I implore everyone to analyze the standards that we are dealt. To me, being proud of one’s culture means embracing the aspects and beauty of the memories and traditions of the past, but also respecting and advocating for individuals who can not freely celebrate their culture due to marginalization, poverty, and other issues. This is difficult, however the smallest stones can create the biggest ripple effects.
This Asian Pacific Heritage Month, I advise others to look at your culture on a deeper level and analyze your heritage. Demolish taboo, speak up and make the world a better place for those who are viewed as invisible to the general population.
Zainab Jamal is a senior at UCF majoring in health services administration. She serves as president of the Pakistani Student Association, advocacy coordinator of the Asian-Pacific American Coalition and a staff writer for Sparks magazine, a student-run publication that provides a mixed-media platform for the Asian and Pacific Islander American community.