Dr. Nida Rehmani
It was the first international journey of my life as I checked into the Indira Gandhi International Airport, India in the fall of 2014. As the plane took off, I bid adieu to my motherland, rising not just above ground, but also beyond expectations, stereotypes and notions. A young married Muslim woman in hijab, traveling overseas alone in the pursuit of higher education: beats all odds at a time.
After boarding the plane, I was fondly gazing at my henna tattooed hands when the events leading to this journey came flashing across my eyes. The flyer for the 21st Century Obama Singh Knowledge Initiative STEM-ER Program had caught my attention while walking past the notice board in the university’s corridor. Although appealing at first, I brushed this idea under the rug, shaking my head at the sheer possibility of traveling abroad all by myself. I hail from the third world nation, India, where Muslim women pursuing higher education comprises a minority and married women in the boat apparently, a rare commodity. Eventually, after deep pondering, the ambitious girl within me prompted me to apply for the program. Somewhere behind my decision, was a zeal to set example, to challenge stereotypes and to do something ‘out of the box’.
Taking baby steps, one at a time, I emerged out of the box, successfully making it to the cohort of the four recipients of the prestigious fellowship. I was anxious, yet excited to be part of the program that entailed conducting research internship and completing two semesters for the M.Ed. degree at the Ohio State University, USA. Being a married girl, I had chosen the road less traveled, specially, by women in my circles.
As the news reached my town, it garnered raised eyebrows and naive apprehensions: at the prospect of a married woman aspiring for higher education abroad! In fact, not just my town folks, but people at my university presumed that marriage would prove a hurdle to my dedication and injustice to the program. My roots are from a culture where tying the knot is often synonymous to bidding adieu to career, particularly for women. Hence, the discouraging comments pouring forth from the society around me were not unimaginable. Fortunately, in my case, I had the support of educated parents, specially my mother, who supported my decision. So, a week-post tying the knot (Nikah) ceremony, I boarded the plane to USA in the quest of American dream. Quite contrary to people’s expectations, I successfully wrapped up two semesters with A-grade along with relevant research data for my thesis at the Ohio State University. As to my dedication, I have vivid flashbacks of spending my birthday working in my research building’s dark room on a chilly winter night. I embarked on the return journey to India filled with fresh perspectives and renewed passion for education and research. I was weaving plans to implement pedagogical strategies, conduct surveys and publish research papers in my home university.
By the end of 2017, I had earned a doctorate in Biochemistry, Masters in Education and the badge of motherhood. I am not sure if the cultural taboos or the stereotypical mindsets have changed back home. However, my priorities, determination and vision have changed since I undertook that journey. I am still proud of my decision to take risk, challenge stereotypes and achieve something deemed ‘crazy’. I agree with Serena William’s message for women in the latest Nike advert, you are only crazy until you do it. So do it, so that you can proudly share your story like me one day.
Post and picture: Dr. Nida Rehmani