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A letter to my 14-year-old self, about being different

Dear Me,

All that stuff that makes you different to the other girls at school? Being brown, Pakistani and Muslim? You don’t have to hide any of it.

Don’t be embarrassed about praying at home with family, learning Urdu, going to the mosque and wearing shalwar kameez. Those family moments that you purposefully kept separate from your school life will make the sweetest of memories that will one day brighten up your homesick soul. Also, if other people haven’t realised that a shalwar kameez is as comfy as a pair of pyjamas and doubles as an acceptable form of daywear, it’s their loss.

I understand why you hate speaking up and try to hide among the many, instead of standing out amid the few. All this uncertainty is necessary right now because you’re choosing who you want to be and listening before speaking. But, that doesn’t give you a free pass to edit out your opinions and experiences because they don’t match everyone else’s. Like a ghost hiding in the shadows, don’t be left shapeless and voiceless. Be seen.

Remember this: those who are the loudest in the crowd haven’t always got it down. Say what you want even if it first comes out in a whisper – softly speak the truth and people will listen harder until you gain the confidence to shout it out. Once you can shout, make it a point to listen to others.

Your unique voice is the very thing that will fuel your career. I know you want to be a postal clerk working in a quiet back office in solitude listening to Bollywood songs on headphones; but tough luck, one day you’ll be a writer with an attitude. You’ll write for the Muslim girls of today so they don’t feel like you did (as out of place as a baguette in a gluten-free pantry) because if you don’t, who will?

Believe in yourself. One day you’ll lecture university students and be on the radio, you’ll pitch to magazine editors and move on after every rejection while fighting the urge to vomit after putting yourself out there (unfortunately that feeling never goes away so you may as well get used to it). Get all the comfort you need from family and friends, but be bolder and do the scarier stuff at school. It gets less terrifying the more you do it.

Work on improving your Urdu vocabulary because it will give you the tools to communicate better with your relatives and learn about your history. Make your dad another cuppa. One day you’ll be too far away to do it and miss sprinkling sweetener in his tea and dipping a digestive in it while he’s not looking. Believe your mum when she tells you that you’re beautiful, even though you feel like you look like a baked potato with curly hair. She may cook stinky food that makes your clothes smell and put a sour spice mix on her fruit salad, but soon balsamic strawberries will be all the rage and her Pakistani habits won’t sound so weird anymore.

Some girls will never ‘get’ you and criticise everything over the next few years, like why you wear a long skirt to school, don’t have a boyfriend and don’t drink alcohol. They are not your people. Instead of bootstrapping your way through those conversations, make friends with like-minded girls.

That empathy that you’ve got in spades? Hold on to it. Feeling affected by people’s pain is a good thing. Being sensitive is not a character flaw despite what the arrogant know-it-alls might tell you. Sensitivity is a route to compassion, to understanding human nature and to a better awareness that everything you say or do has a direct impact on the feelings of others. Next time someone tells you that you are too sensitive, remember it’s just because they don’t like your valid reaction to their unacceptable behaviour. Thank them for the compliment.

Not everyone experiences the special sweet spot between two cultures. Your perspective is rare and interesting so don’t make a secret of your superpower. Instead of dimming your brilliance, shine like a star.

Love,

Me x

@javaria_akbar

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