I met Ruhana at a concert organized by common friends.
One of the biggest secrets she rarely discloses to anyone is her age. And when we became close enough, she told me she was 18. You could not tell by the way she speaks.
She can talk about any topic for hours.
She has this talent for connecting with people and connecting people: you put her alone in a room and she will leave with five friends.
She studies, has two jobs and multiple side-projects, and is part of various ethnic, feminist, spiritual and artistic communities.
As we were chatting about her involvement with minorities, I asked her where it all started.
"Far back. I come from a highly disciplined and traditional family in New Jersey. I studied at a preppy private school. Money was never an issue. People's family name and size house represented their status. One of my friends owned a jet, another one had a monthly $500 allowance; that was normal. Naturally, my friends and I selected people to hang out with based on level of intellect and status. Kids from public school were considered 'improper and unsheltered'. We also would select friends according to their ethnicity. There was only one African American in my school and no Hispanic students. Even as a first generation Bengali American, possessing fair skin was the standard. I always made sure to hide my darker hands under the table, or in my pockets.
One of the core values that was instilled in me since attending that school was practicing discipline to earn respect.
At home, my parents were expecting me to know everything about all sorts of topics (physics, politics, conspiracy, etc) from a very young age. And at school, I'd get a fine if I wore grey socks instead of white, for instance. We were all expected to go to Ivy leagues and land a 6-figure salary job. The GPA determined my entire life and my worth to society. The "A" defined confidence, and I would beat myself up for anything less than that".
I tease her about her current 4.7 grade on Uber.
"Yeah I don’t understand why Uber drivers are judging me so hard...!" We laugh.
"On the other hand, everything was granted, including the teacher's behaviour. Students would have their parents make appointments with the principle if they were unsatisfied with their fixed grades. To be honest, I never realized I was entitled to good treatment until I went out of that situation. I never even learned how to register for my own classes or find classrooms on my own since we were given designated point of contacts to find classes for us on the first day of school.
When I turned 13 years old, I went on a trip to a spiritual Islamic retreat in Tarim, Yemen, for 40 days. In that specific city, it is said that the sun purifies the dirt of your soul.
We spent the days praying in a sacred atmosphere, which opened up the doors to a spirituality that I had never been exposed to before. I understood that life was more than the materialistic things I was exposed to back home. Through a new perspective of religion, I discovered a deeper relationship with a higher being, and gained a new outlook on life and people.
Each Friday evening, a spiritual celebration was taking place where a congregation of women would be gathering, singing, dancing and playing instruments. Each person would play their own music, though somehow manage to all sync together. They were all living fully in the present, enjoying with what little they had. Their inner beauty and independence was glowing.
There were people from all parts of the world; Germany, France, Russia, Malaysia and so on. They had different ideologies, different upbringings. I figured that everybody's life is customized to bring up the best of themselves.
What happens in their lives defines their personality and crafts their motives for doing things.
Once, a clerk at a store, a complete stranger, invited my family and I over for dinner during the stay. She hosted us in such a grand manner with a huge feast of kafsa, an enticing Arabian dish of perfectly seasoned meat and rice. The rest of her family members sat down to put henna on our hands. It seemed so unreal I got skeptical. I supposed she would be asking us for help after she hosted us. It was hard to fathom that she hosted us purely out of kindness. I asked her why she was feeding us in Arabic. And she responded with one word as if the answer was obvious, “Ya’ani adaab.” “I mean...it’s etiquette.” A sense of morality came to thin air and I wondered, “Why aren’t we this nice in America?”.
Again, this made me embrace and respect each individualities more, differences and viewpoints, as well as taking pride in my own views and values and learned to differentiate between the real and the fake. I became interested in understanding behaviours and people.
I redefined knowledge: I was not learning for the sake of learning anymore, because of peer pressure or for the best GPA, rather, I wanted to learn out of genuine curiosity.
Obtaining supplementary knowledge rather than studying the American education system's redundant core curriculum seemed more important to me. So I decided to homeschool for the next 5 months upon my move to California at 15, unaware of the detrimental social consequences. Although the silently killing isolation drove me insane, I was able to learn more about myself and internalize everything around me.
In California, the state of liberalism to the max, I referred to myself as a FOE, fresh off the East. We’re pretty ignorant about racial diversity there. I re-evaluated how I saw people of color; taught myself how to humanize people based on John Locke’s principles of natural rights. I unlearned racist behavior and mentality.
After I switched over to public school, I also began to understand the importance of sisterhood, tied with female empowerment. Insecure but “popular” girls at Santa Clara High swooned over immature foolish boys. Subtle sexism was everywhere from high school to corporate employment.
From body gestures to language, gender discrimination became more prevalent as I started college. I decided to experiment with men; 21 men in the span of three months to be exact. I kept a mental report of my dates' different characteristics associated with races, occupations, ethnicity, their views of women and expectations. Getting hugged rather than having my hand shook in a group full of men; being called an attention seeker for dressing too “provocatively”; being asked why I come home late on the weekends; encountering mansplaining on a daily basis by bosses, colleagues, and friends; my 40 year old male roommate denying that sexual assault is even a real thing; being asked why I go to the gym because my figure didn’t imply it was necessary; friends not believing things happening to me non-consensually. Getting mistreated as a women subtly was something I could no longer tolerate. The values of self respect I learned at school were put in place in my childhood for this reason. Self respect implies the intolerance of bullshit. And in hopes of ending such patriarchal bullshit, I’m planning to start a nonprofit to empower young women in a few years down the line. I embrace my own self. I know who I am, what I like and what I want.”
By switching her focus from "having the best grades" to "real-life experience" through being confronted to different social, spiritual, artistic and ethnic environments, she has become exponentially more curious, open-minded and comfortable networking, and so can anybody,