I was raised as a boy

Published: April 8, 2016
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Shamim Akhtar poses in front of one of the vibrant, graffiti-ridden streets of Karachi, Pakistan. PHOTO: SA'ADIA KHAN

Shamim Akhtar has a small but mighty presence. All of five feet, she holds herself with a self-possessed reserve, wearing a bold red, tie-dyed hijab with lipstick to match. She speaks fast but deliberately, commanding attention. She has always been confident. This confidence, she says, comes from being raised as a boy.

The eldest of eight children, Shamim was born in 1983 in Molvi Abdullah Mari, a rural village in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Her family belongs to a Baloch caste, a conservative and patriarchal sector of society where men traditionally take precedence over women.

“Life was not easy for me,” she said. “When I was born, the girls weren’t allowed to go outside.”

In her caste, it’s commonplace for the firstborn to be male so, when Shamim arrived, her family was faced with a dilemma. Her father and her taya, or uncle, knew it was customary to keep females inside, but they wanted to give her the opportunity to see the world and become part of society. Knowing Shamim is a unisex name in Pakistan, her taya saw a chance to change the course of her life. They decided to raise her as male so, at three-months-old, Shamim went from being a baby girl to a baby boy.

“My taya was not going to let me stay inside,” Shamim said. “He had attended university and wanted to be able to take me out, to show me things, to get an education and the only way he could do that was to dress me as a boy.”

At first, the transition was seemingly easy. Her family would buy her boys’ clothes and keep her hair short. Shamim enjoyed the freedom of shorts and trousers rather than being covered up in a traditional shalwar kameez. Up until the age of 10, she embraced the life that came with being a boy. She went to school and was a happy child. While Shamim attended school with both boys and girls, which in itself was uncommon in Sindh, many families were uncomfortable with their daughters pursuing an education. Although the government had recently begun to allow girls to continue their education beyond the fifth grade, Shamim realised that many of her female classmates would not have the opportunity to move forward to the eight grade with her and started to become frustrated.

At the end of her fifth grade year, her school held a celebration for students and their families. Her taya showed up and asked her class to demonstrate what they had learned after five years in school. None of the students stood up to speak, except for Shamim. She wanted to make him proud and show everyone what was possible when a girl had access to an education — even if only her family and a handful of people from her immediate village knew her true gender.

“Being raised as a boy gave me a certain kind of confidence that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Shamim said. “As I got older, I became frustrated seeing that these boys had the same hands and feet as I did, but they were treated differently. Why were they given priority over girls? It didn’t make any sense.”

She began to notice the small, everyday injustices faced by the girls and women in her village. For instance, when the newspaper arrived at home, it would pass from the eldest male to the youngest, eventually reaching the women once the men were done. By the time the women got hold of the paper, it was the next day and old news. Rather than let herself get angry, Shamim only got savvier, finding ways to keep learning and stay ahead of the boys in her class.

She would plant herself in front of the radio to listen to the BBC World Service and, when her father’s friends came over to talk politics, she would stay home instead of playing with friends to eavesdrop on the conversation. Her extra efforts paid off. Shamim excelled at school; her curiosity was insatiable.

Her extra efforts paid off. Shamim excelled at school; her curiosity was insatiable.

Once she completed eighth grade, however, she became despondent, knowing this would be the end of her education. The local high school was five kilometres away and while it wasn’t a problem for boys because they had bicycles and other means of transportation, her father wasn’t about to allow his daughter to make the trek on her own. Even if she were posing as a boy.

“He told me ‘I can’t let you do that,” she said. ‘“I don’t have the time to walk you there and back. I’m sorry, but it’s impossible.’”

Shamim was devastated but, by some miracle, a distant relative who happened to be a teacher learned of her plight. He offered to teach her the curriculum for ninth and tenth grades over the next two summers while school was out. Summers in Sindh are especially brutal, reaching up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but Shamim was happy to tolerate the heat if it meant she could continue her education.

By the time she had finished the tenth grade, Shamim was becoming a woman and could no longer pass as a boy. Everyone in her village was aware of her secret, and it had become a contentious issue among some of the influential men.

“They didn’t like that there was a girl doing better than their sons,” she said. “I had done well in school and, if someone messed with me, I would fight back. I had become really confident, and they didn’t approve. They would call me out: ‘It’s time you stop acting like a boy. Aren’t you ashamed?’ Because they were my elders, I had to show my respect and would agree to switch back. But as soon as I was a safe distance, I changed back.”

Everyone in her village was aware of her secret, and it had become a contentious issue among some of the influential men. “They didn’t like that there was a girl doing better than their sons,” she said.

The only reason Shamim was interested in changing back into a woman was to attend college in the nearby city of Mirpur Khas. The school had a hostel for girls and she could finish 11th and 12th grades there if she could get her father’s permission. She asked, but he said no. Shamim didn’t give up easily. Instead, she went on strike for three days and convinced her father to let her go. Two years later, when the time came to go to university, she knew getting his consent would be a tougher sell. Her father had turned his attention to her younger brothers, who could go to school, secure jobs and help support the family, while, as a woman, her place was ultimately at home.

Shamim didn’t press her luck, but she also didn’t plan to return home. Instead she signed up for a two-year program to become a female health visitor. It wasn’t university, but she could keep learning and get paid. While she was working in the city’s different hospitals, she came to learn about the Thardeep Rural Development Program (TRDP), a nonprofit that works to empower rural communities in Tharparkar, Dadu and other neighbouring districts of Sindh. Shamim had never heard of the word ‘nonprofit,’ but she was intrigued by the work. Without anyone knowing, she snuck away and travelled five hours, the farthest she had ever been from home, to interview for a position.

She landed the job but that, in her mind, was the easy part. The hard part was facing her father. He had already got wind of the news from relatives, who teased him about his defiant daughter wandering off and scared him with talk of her crossing the border. Shamim wanted nothing more than to accept the role at TRDP, but she knew she disobeyed her father.

“That night, I packed all of my things into a little bag and walked into my father’s room,” Shamim said. “I told him ‘Tomorrow morning, the bus is going to come. If you believe in me, you can wake me up and drop me off at the station. If you don’t wake me up, I’ll understand. I went to sleep, and the next morning, my father was there at my bedside to take me to the bus.”

At TRDP, Shamim began to see there was a Pakistan she didn’t know, a country much more complex than she had realised.

“I had thought I had a difficult life, but then I saw what the women in these districts were experiencing and it really opened my eyes,” she said. “Some of the women had 11 children and nothing to feed them. To get water, the women would have to walk three hours every day to wells six, maybe seven, kilometres away. There were no schools, and the nearest hospital was 32 kilometres away. If a woman was in labour, she would travel by camel to get to the hospital but the distance was so great, it was likely she would die on the way.”

“It became more than just a job for me, it became my passion,” Shamim said.

She would work to midnight every night and take on whatever task came her way. Her team dug wells closer to the villages, created a basic healthcare unit and tried opening a school, but they were only temporary solutions to a larger problem. Shamim started to recognise the shortcomings of the state and the limitations of her contributions.

“We didn’t have the capacity to provide permanent solutions, but we could at least give them some sort of relief. Even today, this part of Sindh is still very bleak.”

“It became more than just a job for me, it became my passion,” Shamim said.

After a few years, Shamim felt bounded by what she could accomplish at TRDP, but back home she was beginning to have a real impact. As friends and neighbours saw her flourishing and sending money home to her parents, they started to understand the importance of education and Shamim soon became a role model. Over time, parents began sending their daughters to school, a road was built to Mirpur Khas, making access easier and acceptable for young women to attend college and her father’s friends would call on Shamim to help their sons find work at non-profits.

Her parents were proud, but they were still not completely comfortable with her being on her own so far away. Around 2014, they wanted her to find a government job closer to home so, when they heard about an opening for a teacher in a nearby school, they applied on her behalf. She wasn’t happy, but they made a deal. She would take the test and if she passed, the decision would be up to her. She got the job, but she was torn. She was happy at TRDP, but also knew change was needed in nearby villages.

In that same year, Shamim had applied and been selected as a 2015 Acumen Fellow and was meeting other young change-makers throughout Pakistan.

“I saw that a lot of the Fellows had taken risks throughout their lives, and I started thinking about what leadership really means,” she said. “I asked myself ‘Should I take this risk?’”

She decided to accept the teacher position on a trial basis but, after the first day, there was no turning back.

“When I walked in to class that first day, I saw all of these little Shamims staring back at me. They were eager to learn, but the school was terribly understaffed. There were no teachers for ninth and tenth grades. Girls would sit there, not learning anything and then leave. I couldn’t bear to see that happening.”

Shamim accepted the role in 2015 and enlisted some of her old friends to help her teach. Already they are seeing enrollment increase and more teachers join the school in the last year. She is also campaigning to build a library and science lab for the school.

“I want to give them exposure to the outside world and open their minds,” she said.

But Shamim being Shamim, she isn’t content on stopping there. Now 33, she is pursuing her PhD, so she can move into a higher position within the district’s education system. She wants the authority to make larger decisions and influence change. Through the Acumen fellowship, she has seen more of the disparity throughout Pakistan and is determined to make sure Sindh doesn’t fall through the cracks.

“When I compared Punjab to Sindh, there is a world of difference,” she said. “Even just in terms of education, I realised Sindh is being held back. Forget a global level; these girls can’t even compete within Pakistan. Boys grow up, go to their private schools, become politicians and don’t care what’s happening in the villages. Sindh gives off a façade of being strong but, if you threw a pebble, it would crumble because there’s nothing inside. If nothing changes, we will be completely left behind.”

But Shamim is up for the task. Tiny but tenacious, she has lived the first 33 years of her life unafraid — and she isn’t about to stop now.

“Something as simple as a piece of clothing was able to completely change my life,” she said. “Without that, I would have never developed the confidence to pursue my education and be where I am today. I would be in a very different position had I been brought up a woman.

As a teacher, I now have exposure to more than 50 girls every year. Imagine what can happen if I teach for 10 years. I might be a small change agent, but I’m creating all of these other change agents. I can only hope they go out into the world and create something big together.”

This post originally appeared here.

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Carolyn Bielfeldt

Carolyn Bielfeldt

The author is an Associate Director of Acumen, a nonprofit global venture fund changing the way the world tackles poverty by investing in companies, leaders and ideas. Based in New York, Carolyn was a former editor for Vanity Fair and has written for a number of US Publications. She tweets as (twitter.com/iamcarolynb)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.