When Anika Akbar was asked to paint a picture that represented her culture, just one image came to mind: a woman’s eye, crying. To some, it may seem like an odd choice, but it’s one Akbar believes many girls like her would relate to.
The 19-year-old is currently pursuing her dream career at the Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education, but getting there was a battle hard-won.
Akbar was born and raised in Hong Kong, but she believes that growing up in a Muslim Pakistani family meant her childhood was very different from her peers.
She tells Young Post that, originally, she had not been allowed to continue her studies after secondary school, because her father was afraid to let her go to an unfamiliar neighbourhood.
“I’ve spent all my life in Tung Chung, but the school I’m enrolled at is in Aberdeen,” she explains. “I was forbidden to study.”
Akbar was used to these kinds of restrictions. Neither she nor any of the other Pakistani girls she knew were allowed to go to picnics, school outings, or parties. They couldn’t take part in extracurricular activities, or even sports like badminton or volleyball, because their families didn’t like them being seen by boys. While their brothers enjoyed relative freedom, Akbar and the other girls was forced to miss out on the fun.
At first, Akbar would challenge these rules. Every time there was an outing, she would ask her parents if she could go. But after several rejections, she stopped asking altogether. She says she was too afraid of getting the same answer again and again.
Rarely are the girls encouraged to put themselves first, says Akbar. While they were still at secondary school, one of Akbar’s friends got engaged. To support her fiancé’s family, the friend had to drop out of school and find a job.
That isn’t the only reason girls are discouraged from entering higher education.
“In our culture, parents believe there are a lot of boys in universities, and that they’re all bad people. So they would do anything to prevent us from being in contact with them,” says Akbar.
The gulf between the life she dreamed of and the one she was expected to lead often felt impossibly wide and deep.
“All these constraints made me feel very sad and depressed. Some of us don’t have the courage to say anything to our parents; we’re really scared. It seems like all we can do is cry and cry, and the next day we just act like nothing happened,” Akbar says.
And so, when Akbar joined an art class sponsored by the Zubin Foundation – a charity that works with ethnic minorities in Hong Kong – she poured her emotions, and those of her friends, onto the canvas, painting a single tear-stained eye. Her piece was later showcased at the Identity Art Exhibition held by the Zubin Foundation to mark the International Day of the Girl in October.
Seeing her painting on display felt like recognition of her struggle to get to where she is today. Two years ago, Akbar came to the realisation that she needed to take control of her own destiny. Without telling her parents, she began applying to tertiary schools around the city.
“I really enjoy studying, and I want to be successful. So I was adamant about doing it, because if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere,” she recalls.
Akbar only told her parents about her application after she’d received a conditional offer. She thought this would make them see how determined she was. Still, her father was against the idea, but after a lot of persuading, he finally agreed to let Akbar study.
Akbar now feels she’s the “lucky one” among her friends, as only a handful of them have been able to continue their studies after secondary school.
According to a report by the Zubin Foundation, based on a series of interviews with 25 Pakistani teens in Hong Kong, opportunities to pursue a university education are virtually non-existent for girls. And although the girls who were interviewed said they believed the Koran – the religious text that forms the basis of Islam – encourages education for girls, they are scared to talk to their parents about it.
The report also says that the average age for girls to get engaged is 15, and most girls find it hard to say no to arranged marriages. Sometimes, girls are tricked into going “on holiday” to Pakistan, only to return married, and unable to finish their education.
“I’m happy I can study because then I won’t have to depend on anyone in the future,” says Akbar. “I will have something to support myself: a degree.”
When she first started college, her family would constantly call and check on her whereabouts, especially during the cold winter evenings. But now, they rarely call to check on her.
It’s a change that gives Akbar hope for the future, but she says more needs to be done for others in her community. “I want the parents to give girls the same opportunities they give boys, because girls have dreams and desires, too.”
Akbar hopes her story will give other girls the courage to fight for their dreams. “I used to give up easily. But now that I know perseverance can pay off, and by talking to my family I was able to pursue my studies – I can actually see myself succeeding.”