My mother is the eldest child of seven siblings; six daughters, one son, the son being the youngest. In other words, my grandparents tried to conceive a boy six times before finally succeeding. Seventh time lucky. Six unwanted girls. My mum has never been able to speak about her childhood without at least coming close to tears. The wounds haven’t healed and they never will. I’ve heard her life story dozens of times but it’s still the most remarkable thing in the world to me. I keep pestering her to write a book about her life but she just laughs it off, making me think that there’s a filial loyalty which she can’t break away from. She acknowledges it herself, saying: “My parents gave me the greatest gift in the world when they brought me to the UK and I will always be thankful for that.”
Having moved to London at the age of twelve from the village in Punjab where she was born, not speaking a word of English, my mother was the first person in her family and the only person in her year at school to go to university. She left home at nineteen and used education as her means of escape. She fought her whole life to get her education. And she has always vehemently told me and my sister that it is our right to get the best education possible. In fact, my parents have made endless financial sacrifices to send us to schools which they couldn’t afford. I remember the practice papers my mum sat with me through, trying to ensure I did well enough on entrance exams to get an academic bursary. With all this in my mind and in my heart, I can’t help but feel frustrated beyond belief when I’m labelled as ‘privileged’ for having gone to a private school. The only way in which I’m ‘privileged’ is in that my mother would give her life before seeing me deprived of the opportunities which she was denied on account of her gender.
My family changed the day I got my Cambridge offer. I came home to my dad flipping through his address book, calling everyone he’s ever known to tell them the good news. I was suddenly royalty of some kind in my family. It was inconceivable to many members of my extended family that I was going to Cambridge. To them, Pakistanis don’t go to Cambridge, and Pakistani girls will go to Cambridge when pork is halal – when hell freezes over. In many Pakistani families, young women are very much under the control of their fathers and once they’re married, their husbands. It’s sickening. Now girls are allowed to attend university, but they still have to live at home. The birdcage is adapted according to what is deemed acceptable in the ‘community’.
There are times when Cambridge seems like the place where I least belong in the world, which I’m sure many WOC can identify with strongly. It’s impossible to relate to the nonchalance of some of the people here, who don’t understand the significance of having generations of sacrifice on your back. My mum was accepted to Cambridge for her master’s degree but had to turn it down owing to my grandmother’s health. For a family that denied the worth of her existence, she sacrificed her dream. The only thing I could think of when I got into Cambridge last year was that I could make her sacrifices worthwhile. So the reality that Cambridge isn’t the promised land I expected it to be has left me disillusioned. My mother’s reaction to my unhappiness was to tell me to do what’s best for me; to give up the fight, to prioritise my happiness, to come home. She was able to calmly let her efforts go to waste, to retreat when my back was against the wall. But I realised, without intending to paraphrase DJ Khaled, that they don’t want Pakistani girls to get a Cambridge degree. It’s been a long fight to get me here, a fight which started long before I was born. Now, when I think about how lonely and inhospitable Cambridge can be, it becomes clear that the world is lonely and inhospitable to Pakistani girls trying to get the education we deserve. The only way to escape the cage is to smash yourself against its walls until it falls apart. So I will get a degree from Cambridge, and I’ll see that it’s displayed on my grandparents’ living room wall, to let them and their ‘community’ know the true worth of having a daughter.