The Nisa sisters are no strangers to standing up and fighting for their right to do what they want in the face of cultural expectations – just ask 17-year-old Khan Huma Nisa.
The Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College student became the talk of her school when it was discovered she had, while wearing a mask, performed in a school dance.
Huma says girls like her, whose family comes from Pakistan, aren’t supposed to be loud in her culture. They aren’t supposed to be “out there”; and they certainly aren’t supposed to dance in public.
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That, however, doesn’t stop them from wanting to do things most young Hongkongers want to do.
The team that performed onstage, The Unspoken, was made up of a handful of girls who love to dance, but who felt like they couldn’t because of their cultural upbringing. That’s why they wore boy costumes and masks to prevent anyone from recognising them.
“We took off anything that would reveal our identities, like our watches,” says Huma.
Their first dance at the school talent show, where they came in first place, was a success – but the road to getting onstage had been rocky.
“The girls’ toilets [at school] are always filled with music and girls dancing,” says Khan Uzma Nisa, Huma’s 18-year-old sister. But getting the girls to take their moves past the bathroom doors had been hard, and keeping them in the team was even harder. The girls were constantly worried that they’d be unmasked.
It was a fear that seemed justified when, in the heat of the moment, someone shouted out Huma’s name during a public performance. Huma had told only a select few about her leading the all-girls team and, once that happened, the other girls started dropping out.
Instead of disapproval, though, the Form Six student found that her teachers were supportive of her actions, encouraging her to take part in more dance competitions – despite losing her original dancers.
“It’s exhausting for her, [the team is always changing] and she has to start over [all the time],” says Uzma.
The future of The Unspoken isn’t the only thing that Huma has to deal with right now – her HKDSE exams are approaching, and she is also facing pressure to be the “next record breaker” in the family, as her teachers would put it.
Uzma got into the University of Hong Kong’s Bachelor of Arts programme with two 5**, one 5*, and one 5 in the 2017 HKDSE, as well as an A* in GCSE Chinese.
Huma says Uzma is helping her view the pressure as motivation, as her older sister told her to “think of the DSE as your first fight. If you’re successful, you’ll [get to] move on and be great [at the next thing]”.
These words aren’t empty when they come from Uzma – when the HKU student was studying for her HKDSE, she would stick her study notes all over the flat so that she would learn and remember even as she went about her daily life.
Huma will be the third family member to graduate from Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College. Khan Ekra Nisa, the oldest Nisa sister, graduated when she was 17, and took two years out of the education system to work. She did this because she felt that working would broaden her horizons, as well as save money.
Ekra, now 20, is back at school. She plans to study early childhood education, because the whole family recognises the importance of having a good education.
The Nisa sisters have done so well for themselves, Uzma explains, because of their respect for learning. Their dedication to their studies is, in part, thanks to their mother’s attitude. She grew up in Pakistan, got married when she was 25, and – knowing no English or Chinese – moved to Hong Kong to raise a family. Despite her lack of any formal education, their mum threw herself into learning as much as possible about her new home.
“If you’re interacting, then you’re learning. [Our mum] pushes us to volunteer, and to make Chinese friends all the time,” says Uzma.
Before their schedules became so busy, Huma and Ekra volunteered to tutor at HSBC Hong Kong Community Partnership Programme’s Speak As One – Ethnic Minority Community Project.
“It was an opportunity for us to give back to society,” says Huma.
Still, no matter how busy Huma gets, she will always have time for dancing – even if it means doing it in her own time and without a team to back her up. There’s no stopping her now.