Growing up in Pakistan, Aysh Khan had to fight for her right to go to school. Today, she has a message for young girls who want to follow in her footsteps.
“I am empowered and I am strong because I now have authority over my life.”
I belong to a small town in Gujranwala, Pakistan. I was born to a very poor family. Having food and shelter was all we could think about, and meeting our basic expenses was a feat. My father was a fruit seller, and education was not seen as a requirement—especially for girls.
Girls were meant to learn household skills, to get married, to take care of a husband, her in laws, and her children. For a girl, doing anything for her own well being was out of the question.
Even in this conservative environment, I had a dream of getting an education. I fell in love with books at a very early age, and I was a bright student in primary school. I had trouble getting copies of books and supplies, but I saved the little pocket money I had, and gave all my energy to my studies. I always performed well despite not having guidance from my family.
I remember when I was 10 years old my father tried to explain to me that girls are respected for being experts at household tasks—not for having degrees. After all, what good is a degree when your husband and in laws are hungry? I cried when I heard this.
When I completed primary education, my father told me that because I could now read and write I had had enough education for a girl. He told me he couldn’t afford the expense of sending me to a private secondary school, and that I should learn to cook and manage the home. He wanted me to be a successful wife, daughter-in-law, and mother.
I asked my mother to convince my father of the value of education at any cost. Eventually, he agreed and I was admitted to a government school that did not cause my family financial burden. I was happy because I was going to become educated.
Then, after a year, my father lost his job. We went days without food and we could not pay our electricity bill. It was a very hard time for us, but I was not discouraged and continued to focus on my studies. I went to school without ironing my uniform for a whole year, which was a psychological pain. My mother washed our clothes via hand pump. I had to study for exams by the light of the moon, as we had no torchlights at home and the electricity had been shut off.
Still, when the term finished and results were declared, I had achieved first position in my class. I was proud of my accomplishment, and I learned that hard work always pays off.
But then my family suffered a huge loss. My father passed away from liver cancer. I was 13 years old.
Many advised my mother to end my studies as my father’s death meant we had no income. My mother, however, declared that my education was free and it was not a burden to her. I continued in school and excelled.
I studied computer science because I love information technologies, and have found so many benefits from connecting online. IT has changed my life and my views on many things. With access to information, I found strength and felt empowered. I was able to connect to people online who encouraged and understood me.
Relatives tried to convince my mother that she should focus on finding me a spouse, but she instead continued to support me in my quest for further education. I was determined to pave the way for other girls to continue their education by becoming a strong role model for them.
I got good grades in school, but I soon ran into another hurdle. There was no way to continue my education in my town for free. I asked for help, and God sent an angel to me. One of my cousins took responsibility for funding my education. Society advised him against it, but my cousin is well educated himself, and believes that educating a girl is equivalent to educating a generation.
He said, “She is so young to get married now, and she is fond of study. A shortage of money should not be a barrier for her study.” He knew that if I were to be educated and independent, I could then support my family. He helped me to obtain a degree in business.
While at university, I faced my relatives’ jealousy. My cousins did not have the opportunity to be educated and taunted me. I kept silent, but they called me proud. They tried to malign my character. They followed me to university and claimed I was having an affair. They wanted to catch me with some boy to put an end to my education. But when I graduated from university, my cousins had not found a single thing they could use against me.
After university, I started a job as an accountant in my town. I supported my family and my sister’s education. Both my brothers also started working and our family’s condition became easier.
But then, our family saw more tragedy. My younger brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and after two months of pain, he died. We were all shocked, and the loss broke us. I was completely lost.
But I knew I had a responsibility to my family. I started a Masters in Political Science because I wanted to know how governments can do better for the world. While going to school, I worked as a tutor for children in the evening and then got a job in the telecom sector of Pakistan.
It was during this time that I met a strong woman named Sister Zeph who runs a school for girls in my country. She told me stories of the women and girls she teaches. They have lives more difficult than mine, and their stories gave me hope for what I could achieve. Even today Sister Zeph tells me, “You are young and educated, you can do anything.”
I have now completed my degrees, and today I am the HR manager for the biggest rental and car company of Pakistan.
I share my story to say that while I faced cultural, financial, and personal difficulties in achieving my goals, I did not allow the hardships to discourage me. Instead, the suffering worked as motivation for me. Poverty, psychological and societal pressures, gender norms, and the loss of two family members made me stronger.
Some of the relatives who ridiculed me, now tell my story to their own daughters and advise them to be strong like me. The same people who called my mother a fool for allowing her daughter to be educated, now call her lucky because she has a daughter like me. And they now ask me for suggestions for their own children’s studies. I always advise a degree in IT, as I believe technology is the future of the world.
In my life now, I am doing all the things boys do. I live on my own. I support my family, and I lead. I am empowered and I am strong because I now have authority over my life. There is no need to tell me what I should or should not do, because my choices are my own.
To those who tried to discourage me and to those who underestimated me because I am female, I want to say, “You have no idea how strong God has made me and every woman.”
And to the girls who are facing barriers and struggling to live their own lives, I say, “Keep your chin up, pursue an education, consider IT as a field of study, and use your laptop or computer to empower you. There is an awesome world out there to be discovered. Never, ever compromise your passions. If you do what you love, the rest will fall into place.”
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller!Learn more.