Saira Saeed: The Value of Tolerance
This story was produced in partnership with American Pakistan Foundation
For me, because I grew up in an area where there are not a lot of Muslims, and I grew up at a time, where I was the only Muslim in my school, in my society, among all of my friends. I didn’t grow up with any other Muslim children my own age. So, I had to explain Islam, people were confused about my roots, of Pakistan, they didn’t know where it was, so my parents had to come and educate my classmates. They didn’t know about Ramadan, or Eid, or any of the Muslim holidays. So, I had to educate them, sometimes they confused it with Hinduism, because I’m South Asian, so they assumed that Hinduism and Islam were the same. And they would ask me questions, “Why doesn’t your mother wear a red dot, why doesn’t she wear a sari?” Because these are some of the images that they knew of South Asia, that everyone who comes from South Asia, is a Hindu with a red dot, as a woman. “But then we see your mother wear pajamas, why does she wear pajamas”. I said, “This is not pajamas, this is shalwar kameez because as Muslims, we are to dress conservatively. And this is the way that my mother grew up and this is the way she likes to educate people that she is first Pakistani, even though she is a nationalized citizen, she is first Pakistani and she uses it as a tool to educate people about Pakistan.”
Obviously with the news, when it bleeds, it leads. So, most people in the world believe that Muslims are terrorists, Muslims have views that are not aligned with those in the United States or the western world, that we seek to cause harm. Our tolerance, the fact that Islam is a peaceful religion, Islam means peace and most Muslims can be active citizens, can be active members of their society, and be faithful Muslims. I think that there has been a lot of work done to improve that.
But where I grew up in, New Orleans, Louisiana, as I said there are not a lot of Muslims, and there are people who have entrenched views, views that are taught in their society and community. So, it is important for them to see Muslims for them to see and to invite them.
So, that’s one thing that I’m very proud of my family for. From day one, is to invite Jewish neighbors, Christian neighbors, and from day one, I saw all of these people being mentioned in my house to say, “These are normal people, we affiliate with them, we talk to them.” Even when you are discriminated against, and I was discriminated against, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the society there is known for racial discrimination, and because of that my parents never let it stop them. My siblings sometimes say, “We can’t go into that restaurant because there are only white people there. Or we can’t go into that restaurant because there are only black people there”. My parents would grab our hands and say, “No, we belong here too”. And they would not let it bother them, and so they would say that it shouldn’t bother you. So, I really must thank my parents, who believed in tolerance, who believed in supporting other religions, they said, we are all people of the book.
I wonder if I would have grown up overseas, how my life would have been different. How my perspectives would have been different. Because when I go overseas, people do say I’m very American, maybe because I’m a woman who is very bold, and took an opportunity to leave home at age 17. This was not easy for me to do, my father’s mother did not speak to him for allowing me to go away for college. Because in the society where she grew up, woman does not travel that far and live on their own. My father stood up for me, and said, “She wants to study International Relations, she wants to study this”, and he stood up for me, and that’s how I was able to go. He stood up to his mother, which was very difficult to do. But to support women’s education, he did it.
I would say, now, in America, there are many of us who have had the opportunity, have faced the challenges of going, who didn’t know how to do it. There were no organizations, no mentorships. Now, through social media, through organizations like the American Pakistan Foundation, you can meet people, you can speak with them. I have done a mentorship session, thanks to Shamila, with other people that are interested in working in Pakistan. Because I work in the Arab World, I have been able to meet people form Arab American groups, Afghan American groups, to say that you should explore your culture. I feel like Muslim Americans are asked about their backgrounds. No matter who you are, if you were raised in Houston, Texas, Washington D.C, California, New Orleans, people will always ask where are you from, because your name is different, or you look different than the traditional American. So, when someone, a Muslim American, wearing a hijab, says, “I’m from Houston Texas”, they would look at you strange, “but where are you really from, is the question?”. So, it’s important for a lot of us who grow up here to know our culture, to know our roots, and if you aren’t able to go back home, there are people who have done this and who have been able to go, and figure out the way, so they can link you in, and we are very happy to do so.
I hope to start the next segment of my life, which I never imagine to be where I am. I never imagined as a girl from New Orleans, who grew up in New Orleans, a girl who was born in Pakistan, lived in Saudi Arabia as a child, would end up living in Washington D.C. I hope to look at the next chapter to see what more I can do for the Muslim World, how I can do this in a private matter, and not with an institution, but as an individual. Because I believe I have more power as an individual without political or other affiliation to help support others, and that’s my goal.