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Steps to Independence
To grow up, I need to roam alone
Farhana Hussain
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The crisp October breeze lightly brushed my face and the bright red and golden leaves crunched like wrinkled paper under my shoes. I walked hurriedly, my feet taking me two large sidewalk squares ahead of my mother’s pace.

“Farhana! Watch where you’re going! Didn’t I tell you to look both ways before you cross the street?” my mom said as she tried to catch up to me, an angry scowl on her face.

Trying to stay well ahead of my mother, I’d attempted to jaywalk—and almost got hit by a car.

“Farhana!”

I turned around, my cheeks burning with embarrassment.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “Everyone is going to know that my mom still takes me to school in the 9th grade. Why did she have to say my name?”

I sensed a public lecture coming and it felt like the whole world was watching. As if on cue, my mom said angrily in Bengali, “How could you be so careless about your surroundings?” She took a deep breath and spoke more calmly. “Do you think I took you to school just to see you get hit by a car?”

I silently shook my head no. A warm smile spread across her face, her eyes shimmering with tears.

“Where do you think I would get another daughter like you if something happened?” she asked. And then, without waiting for my response, she pulled me into a warm hug and cried on my shoulder. I was mortified.

My Liberal Muslim Family

Unlike other South Asian girls in my neighborhood, I come from what other kids might call a “liberal” Muslim family. My parents allow my siblings and me to go outside in Western-style clothes like casual shirts and jeans instead of hijabs (headscarves) or long, flowing Salwar kameez shirts embroidered with colorful flowers and gemstones. We can play sports in the park, go on out-of-state school trips, and, most importantly, pursue our education.

But traveling freely on my own is another story. Going to the library a few blocks away from my home is fine, but someone has to be with me. Going to the mall with my friends? No chance. Sleepovers? Nope.

It’s different for my brother. He has more freedom because he is older—and because he’s a guy. He can go out with his friends and do fun things like watch the fireworks at Times Square for New Year’s Eve, but I can’t. He can come home later at night without giving a big explanation, but I have to be home by 6 p.m.

Even though I get annoyed about this, I don’t speak up because I don’t want to disrespect my parents. Because I am a girl, my parents fear that I am vulnerable to predators and not strong enough to protect myself. I understand: They are bombarded by news reports about women or young girls being raped and sexually assaulted in places like subways and elevators.

There’s also the fact that I don’t wear the hijab. My parents fear this will make guys think I’m allowed to date and draw unnecessary attention when I’m alone in public. It’s true that I haven’t had a lot of experience handling these situations, but how will I ever learn if I don’t have the chance to practice?

Escorted to School

My parent’s concern for my safety became strong three years ago when I was a freshman in high school. We lived in the Bronx, but I was going to attend a high school in Brooklyn.

“It’s a very long commute,” my dad said one day as he, my mom, and I sat at the kitchen table sipping tea together.

“Bad things can happen when you’re alone. That’s why we’ll take and pick you up from school,” my mom added.

I sank back into my chair and sighed. “I knew this would happen.” The fact that I was bad with directions made my parents’ concern even bigger.

“You’re not street smart. What if you get lost? A stranger might try to follow you.”

image by YC-Art Dept

They had a point. I reluctantly agreed to let my parents take me to school on the first day. But the same thing happened on the second day, then the third, and every day after. Having my parents by my side made me feel like I was a kindergartener.

My parents both worked, so they had to take turns escorting me nearly an hour and a half each way from
the Bronx to Brooklyn. “I really appreciate what both of you are trying to do, Mom and Dad,” I often said to myself. “I am thankful to have parents like you. But I still want to go places on my own.”

By early spring, my parents finally allowed me to go school by myself. They hesitated at first, but I persisted and they finally gave in.

Building My Street Smarts

The first day of my solo commute, I had mixed feelings. I was glad to be on my own. But I was also afraid. My parents tried to shield me from danger. It prevented me from learning how to identify and handle myself in a risky situation. Consequently, I felt unsure of myself.

For example, I thought for a while that a “shady” guy was following me home from school. He and I got off at the same stop and would walk a similar route. I was afraid and told my parents. But I didn’t let fear stop me from commuting alone.

One day I got out of the subway and started walking home. I brushed my long, wavy hair out of my face because I wanted to take in all my surroundings. I made my best “don’t-try-to-mess-with-me” face.

The guy I suspected of following me was nowhere in sight. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in nearly two weeks. “It must have been a coincidence,” I thought as I walked briskly past a park.

Suddenly I spotted my dad and grandmother. With scowling faces and alert eyes, they looked like warriors ready to protect their kin.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked my dad, shocked.

“We were trying to find the guy who was following you. We saw a fat guy singing a few blocks down. Was it him?” my dad asked, his voice deep and serious.

I burst out laughing. I recognized the man my dad was describing—in fact, I’d walked past him two blocks ago. He was just a chubby guy in a big sombrero playing mariachi music. He looked a bit odd, but I didn’t think he wanted to hurt anyone.

That day, I realized how fearful my parents are about my vulnerability as a girl. I realized I had to be careful not to let their fears consume me. But I tried to become more street smart and trust my instincts.

One Step at a Time

The summer before junior year, I joined a volunteer program. My parents were just as concerned about my safety as they’d been on the first day of 9th grade. The difference was that this time, my volunteer site was just a few bus stops away—and I was two years older. Nonetheless, my mom was worried.

“You don’t have to go. Tell them you can’t join.”

I got upset but stayed calm. “Mom, I really want to do this program. It’ll be fun and good for my college resumé.”

We finally agreed that someone would take me to my program on the first day. They wanted to be by my side even after that. But this time, I put my foot down.

Over time, I gained more confidence. Now I travel alone more often, and that has shown my parents that I know how to take care of myself outside their protective grasp.

Lately I’ve been thinking about studying martial arts, especially Taekwondo. I hope Taekwondo will help me be even stronger and more confident, reinforcing to my parents—and myself—that I’m not just a fragile girl with no street smarts.

I think college will really be the key to my freedom, though. My older sister is allowed to do the same things as my brother now because she graduated from college. In the meantime, I’ll keep pushing for independence, one step at a time.

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(NYC-2016-11-14)

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