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Opinion: My grandmother brought realization of education as a privilege, not a burden

(Isabella Lee/Illustrations director)

By Manahil Gill

May 11, 2023 9:12 p.m.

“How are Manahil’s grades? Has she been studying?”

These were always my grandmother’s first words during her daily phone calls with my mom.

Despite all of her children pursuing professional degrees and her husband being a colonel in the Pakistan army, my grandmother never attended college.

While my grandmother’s concern seemed dramatic to me at the time, my mother anticipated her nagging. For my grandmother, education was not encouraged but expected across generations.

My grandmother – or my Amiji in Urdu – was the only girl in her Pakistani village to receive a high school diploma.

In the 1960s, when my Amiji grew up, it was hard for the people around her to conceptualize a woman pursuing academia – it simply wasn’t the norm.

Despite these societal barriers to pursuing an academic career, my grandmother was undoubtedly a passionate learner. Because women’s writing competitions were scarce, she participated in and won men’s writing competitions under a male pseudonym. My grandmother made do with what she had, standing proud with her award ribbons as the sole woman in a crowd of disbelieving men.

Unfortunately, her defiance of the norm came to a quick halt.

For the first half of my life, I had no idea about my Amiji’s struggles to achieve her educational goals. I was born in New York City and have lived in the U.S. ever since. Most of my childhood was spent moving between cities such as Little Rock, Cincinnati and Dallas because of my parents’ medical training.

Going to school was never something I considered a blessing. I grew up in a tight bubble of educational privilege, naive to my grandmother’s history: My mom and dad were doctors, and my brothers and I attended private schools. As a child, I ignorantly thought that everybody shared this experience.

When I was 10 years old, my Amiji quietly told me that she wanted to become a famous writer. However, soon after high school, she married my grandfather and became pregnant with my eldest uncle.

This shocked me. At such a young age, my perception of my grandmother was one-dimensional. Her face was always decorated with a wide grin and she served as the matriarch of a huge, happy family. But as I grew older, I understood where that perpetual grin came from, despite her sacrifices.

While societal norms and values kept my grandmother from pursuing her dreams, her efforts ensured that her daughters wouldn’t go down the same path.

All three of her daughters became doctors and steered in the complete opposite direction from their mother, who had her opportunities robbed from her.

Similarly to my Amiji, my mother constantly reminded me to seize every opportunity, to never silence my opinions and relish my late nights studying instead of resenting them. My grandmother taught her daughters to fight for their careers so they could live independent lives outside the realm of motherhood and homemaking.

Although my mother’s busy career transferred some extra responsibilities to me, she, too, has been fighting for my education since day one. She fostered my love for learning since I first learned how to read at the age of three.

Had I been born in a Pakistani village instead of Brooklyn, I, too, could have been in a situation like my grandmother’s.

Without her perseverance, this could have been the case. But she devoted every minute to creating a better future for her daughters, and my mother did the best she could to do the same for me.

Through my grandmother and mother, I’ve learned that education is a privilege in and of itself. It’s so easy nowadays to hastily complete my school assignments instead of trying my best or to spend my lectures online shopping instead of taking notes.

But then, I remember that my grandmother’s daily reminders to my mother were not in vain. She wasn’t obsessed with my grades, she was obsessed with me attaining the future I deserved.

Attending college only further fostered her dream for me. Far away from my home in Dallas, I escaped the traditional responsibilities that my parents unknowingly bestowed upon me and have been free to fully dedicate myself to the gift of education.

As a UCLA student, I plan to pursue not just a career in medicine, but also my interest in French and European studies. I can volunteer at hospitals and write for the school newspaper under my true name, not a man’s.

I know I can’t take this for granted, especially when somebody so close to me yearned for this level of independence and never received it.

While society as a whole has become more progressive, so many girls in Pakistan still face the same fate as my grandmother, even decades later. Within so many cultures, traditional gender roles dominate young women’s lives – what careers they can pursue, what responsibilities they have, and what their futures holds.

Nonetheless, my grandmother taught me that the right efforts can make changes that span generations.

Because of my grandmother and mother, I was able to keep my eye on the goal and push past the resistance I faced.

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Manahil Gill
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