I was the first one to be called on the stage for my PhD graduation ceremony on 2nd October 2015 at The University of Technology, Sydney. Having “Bano” as my surname, I usually come at the top when names are sorted alphabetically. I remember standing there with a sudden rush of emotions and flashback of memories. I couldn’t even believe it was real. I heard my name, walked shakily and cautiously to the stage in high heels (which I wore to compensate for the oversized graduation gown). I saw my PhD supervisor Professor Didar Zowghi beaming at me from the front row of procession. I remember Vice Chancellor’s reading aloud my thesis abstract before announcing the most anticipated line for me: “I present to you Dr. Muneera Bano”.
And with that, I broke my concrete ceiling. A glass ceiling allows you to see through it, a bamboo ceiling allows you to hear what is happening on the other side, even if you can't see it. And a concrete ceiling would not let you perceive any reality behind that confinement. What do you do then? Well, if you can't see, does not mean you can't dream, you are only limited by your own imagination. And once you have a dream, it's your choice how hard you will work to turn it into reality regardless of the odds.
I was 10 years old when I came back home to show my father a picture of myself being given an award by the Principal for being the topper of the class in my final exams. It was around this time when he told me that unlike my brothers, my education was a privilege which was denied to every woman in my entire family from my mother’s generation to preceding ones in north-west Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whenever I mention my ethnicity to others, most of the time I get puzzled looks in return; who are Pashtuns? My ready to go answer is, do you know Malala Yousafzai, and I have never heard no for this question. She is a Pashtun girl with a world-wide famous story and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize.
I didn't have to face the cultural adversaries like her, but my mother who grew up in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the north-west province of Pakistan, was denied education only because of her gender. My father on the other hand, a Pashtun man, was able to travel to North America and had access to higher education back in the 60s. Both my parents moved to the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, where I was born and raised. I am the youngest, the fifth child, and the only sister of four elder brothers. My parents raised me equal to my brothers in every aspect including education. Hence, I never took my education for granted. I decided to demonstrate that given equal opportunities, girls can outperform men in any field. I chose the male-dominated field of computing, did my Bachelors and Masters in Computer Science from Pakistan. Eight years ago, I came to Australia to pursue PhD in Software Engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). My decision met with obvious resistance, a single, Muslim, Pashtun woman traveling abroad for education, a strange notion for people back home.
I had never lived without my family before. Not only that I had no family in Australia, but there was not a single person in the whole country whom I could call 'my friend'. The only place of belonging was my university, where I spent days in the lab in isolation and mostly on social media to be connected to my family and friends in Pakistan. It was also that same university where I did academic research, excelled in my field, learnt, grew and made life-lasting friends including my PhD supervisor, Professor Didar Zowghi. It was during my PhD that I learned to live my life independently and manage my own finances. I traveled around the world to present my research in China, New Zealand, Brazil, Sweden, Italy, Canada, Malaysia, France, Germany, Spain and South Korea.
Three years later, I graduated with a PhD in Software Engineering and broke my concrete ceiling as a Pashtun woman. I could see some other graduating students worried about life after PhD, but I was no longer afraid of the future. My PhD was not a pursuit of a degree in the form of a piece of paper, it was a reforming journey of my life towards empowerment. That day, I felt this enormous sense of achievement, resilience and fearlessness, so much so that I knew there never would be any ceiling, glass or bamboo, that I am not capable of bringing down, for I broke my own "concrete ceiling".
It has been eight years in Australia, and here I am today, with a PhD in Software Engineering, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, a superstar of STEM and winner of the 40 under 40 most influential Asian-Australian leadership award. I did not change my name to fit into the Australia society, nor did I ever try to change my accent. I always proudly told everyone who I am and where I came from. I came to Australia as an immigrant, single, Muslim, Pashtun woman from Pakistan. I was told that each of these identifiers is a barrier to success and empowerment. I never considered them as barriers. These are my badges of honor in the war of identities. To break any ceiling, you need to embrace your “superpower of authenticity”. Never lose your authenticity.
Post by : Dr. Muneera Bano
Edited by: Dr. Nida Rehmani
About the Editor:
Dr. Nida Rehmani serves as a mentor for the Global STEM Alliance, New York Academy of Sciences and mypi.org, USA. She is the scientific editor for Bio-services.org and content editor for Lotus Stories blogs.
Dr. Rehmani completed her B.S. & M.S. in Biochemistry from India. Her zeal for higher education led her to pursue Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. Under the auspices of the Obama-Singh exchange dual degree program, she continued her research in the Department of Radiology, The Ohio State University, USA. During the program, she earned a M.Ed., specialized in STEM higher education.