Naila Sahar: Cultivating Empathy Through Cross-Cultural Understanding

Naila Sahar is a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan, and is currently pursuing her PhD in English from State University of New York at Buffalo, New York. She has 13 years experience of teaching at university level, which includes teaching formal and business communication and English Language and Literature at graduate level. Her interests include Diaspora Studies and Transnational Literature, and her PhD dissertation will be on the Identity Crisis of Muslim Diaspora, with emphasis on Post-9/11 era. In her story with MALA, Naila shares her compelling insights on why awareness and education of other cultures and civilizations is important to break stereotypes and cultivate more empathy and understanding in the world. 


My name is Naila Sahar. I came to the U.S after winning Fulbright scholarship for PhD from Pakistan. Seen in that way, I don’t have the woes and challenges that immigrants have, for many reasons. First because luckily I’m on a prestigious visa status, second because I know I have to get back to my country after finishing my studies, so I don’t have to make extra efforts to gel in American society, and then may be because I’m crazy busy with my two kids and studies and have a strong circle of Fulbright research fellows all around me, I haven’t faced the problems of discrimination much. By ‘much’ I certainly mean that I faced ‘some’. I still remember, after I came, my family joined me a month later, and we went shopping together. My 4 year old daughter playfully ran herself into an African American woman, and the woman got infuriated and said while looking at me ‘These bloody immigrants better stay home’. That was my first encounter with American racial demographics.

Before I landed here, I naively believed in the U.S being a ‘melting pot of cultures’; however, gradually I realized, it was not even a fruit salad bowl that looks delicious if you look closer. It was a bowl of congealed vegetables, hard to mix in and never giving in to amalgamation. I noticed lack of international students in my own department and lack of welcoming attitude on behalf of American class fellows to their international class fellows. For the Fulbrighters coming to this country, having a strong group is an edge. We have Fulbright fellows from the whole world trying to cope with almost same issues as us, so we bond together much better and this is what saved me here in Buffalo, NY.

After coming here, what has been very striking to me is the lack of geographical knowledge of Americans. I’m from Pakistan and many Americans think that we are a part of Middle East when we are actually in South Asia. I have been asked many times if we speak Arabic at home, when our national language in Pakistan is Urdu, not Arabic. Americans hardly know much about the world yet the stereotypes they’ve about the rest of the world are all formed through media propagation and are mostly garnered from Fox news. Once, the administrative Assistant of my department asked me if girls are allowed to go to school in Pakistan, and that instead of Malala I should get the Nobel Prize since I made to USA for PhD. Such remarks are not only very amusing, but also distressing. I had to tell her then that in Pakistan although there are many challenges for women, but they go to schools and Universities and there are many accomplished female educationists, doctors, pilots and engineers. I think in this era of intolerance, misconceptions, bigotry, and bias, we need to educate people about the world, about civilizations and cultures that are different to cultivate empathy, sympathy and understanding.

My identity is really important for me, however, in a country like the U.S where bigotry is on rise, I feel it’s more important to amalgamate then segregate on the basis of religion. For me, faith is, and should be a personal choice, not something to be forced on others. I’ve never taken hijab because in Pakistan it is not a compulsion like it is in Iran or some other Middle Eastern Muslim countries. I’ve seen women from Muslim countries where Hijab is a compulsion, and when they come to US, they enjoy freedom by transitioning totally according to American way of life. They instantly start dressing up and living life contrary to their cultural norms, eager to gel in a new culture. I think this happens only because religion becomes claustrophobic enough in their own countries and they enjoy the air while they are away. This totally shows that faith shouldn’t become a matter of coercion because then it becomes authoritarian enough and people struggle to abscond as soon as the chance presents itself.

It’s this kind of personal freedom that I admire here. You can do whatever you want and no one will judge you, contrary to Pakistani society where women are judged for everything; the way they dress up, for the circles they move in, for going out on their own, for getting married of their own choice, for their decision to live or leave their marriage, for being held responsible to protect a family’s honor. A girl’s life is inextricably attached to her family and her society, and to the decisions that her father or brothers make for her and she is constantly marginalized by the patriarchy at home and outside in Pakistan. After marriage, she becomes prisoner of some more societal concepts where she is expected to put up with a new family’s ideals and ideas of life, forgetting about her individual freedom and ideas. Women thus constantly find themselves being objectified and subjected to others’ decisions and there are innumerable unseen barriers that she has to face.

My personal experiences are not very bitter since I was born and bred in an educated family, but even then I had to convince my father to let me pursue further studies once I was done with my Masters in English Literature. My father was Director General of Ministry of Religious Affairs, and unlike most bureaucrats in Pakistan he was a very honest, simple and a very religious person. Despite being religious, he strongly believed in girls getting best education. In our home, nothing was more important than studies and maybe that’s why two of my siblings are doctors and one has done her Masters in Arabic Literature. My own life is a story of personal struggle, where when I saw my life getting stagnant I knew I will have to personally make efforts to improve the quality of our life and my kids’ life by pursuing a PhD. Getting Fulbright scholarship needed hard work, struggle and patience and winning it became a successful milestone in my life. My husband, who is quite different from conventional Pakistani husbands, who always encouraged me to go forward and struggle for opportunities, who never became a barrier in my successes, gets a lot of credit in all that I’ve achieved so far. My whole life in Pakistan, I’ve constantly seen girls around me suffering for countless issues and for that matter, men in Pakistan are as tied with traditions as are women, however they enjoy better freedom. I’m out of the lucky few females who have enjoyed relatively better circumstances in deciding the course of their life. After coming to the U.S, I’ve learned what personal freedom is and I think it will help me raise my kids.

Here, I’m volunteering as a coordinator for Fulbright Young Professionals Network (YPN), Western New York Chapter. The group is responsible to arrange get together every semester and is a platform for the Fulbrighters in this region to connect and share concerns and events with each other. We’ve arranged many successful events through this platform and it’s a way to know so much more about the world as the group consists of scholars from different parts of world. My achievements include attending and presenting in some best conferences in my research area, like Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), South Asian Literary Association (SALA), British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies (BCPS) conference, New York Conference on Asian Studies (NYCAS). For the paper presentation at BCPS conference, I was awarded the prestigious travel award by American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS).  I’ve presented papers about Pakistan’s culture and writing tendencies of Pakistani authors on these platforms. Where ever I go, I try my best to represent my country in a positive light and to make best of my opportunity to improve the misrepresentations of our people. I’m really hoping that being here, I can substantially add to American’s understanding of Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims, and take back a sense of intellectual freedom that I’ve strongly felt and enjoyed, to inculcate it in academia in Pakistan where I’ve to eventually head back and work.

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