Saeed discusses how she confronts masculinity and belonging amidst cultural differences
February 22, 2022
The first thing Rabia Saeed noticed when she stepped out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was the sky. No, she marveled at it. Distinctly universal in nature, Earth’s vast ceiling was a startling note of change.
“The sky here is much bluer and much higher,” Saeed noted.
It was August 2018, his new beginning. Coming from Pakistan and pursuing a career as a writer, Saeed’s one-way trip to the United States was an incredible testament to his courage, ambition and intuition. Fresh out of college and braving the unknown, she left JFK that day in search of a new home under that blue sky.
Saeed had majored in economics in college, but the momentum of her final year brought on pressing feelings of bewilderment and dissatisfaction. Saeed, who had fallen into a deep and untamed love for books from a young age, was finally struck by a life-changing realization: her mind’s affinity for words would never be suppressed by the seeming bland number sensitivity.
“For me, reading is one of the reasons for living. It gives me more or as much pleasure as relationships and friendships. So if I had to say what my two favorite things in the world are, I would say reading and talking,” Saeed said. “They make me feel connected to life; they make me understand life.
Her undying love for reading and writing, however, complicated her postgraduate plans, as aspiring female writers in Pakistan were rarely set up for success. As Saeed explained, the country is extremely patriarchal and economically conservative, which is why dreams as bold as his would never be openly embraced there.
That’s why she decided to apply to several fine arts graduate programs across the United States. Before long, she was accepted into the University of Massachusetts MFA program for fiction writing. She has lived in the United States since that pivotal day in 2018, never letting bullying or inexperience get in the way of her sense of belonging.
“There’s a split happening, isn’t there? Like when I’m in Pakistan they say ‘Oh she’s from America’ and if I’m in America they say ‘Oh she’s from Pakistan’ so wherever you are you’re somewhere else […] but I became very comfortable in that in-between space,” Saeed explained.
For the past three years, Saeed has dedicated herself to speaking the untold truth about what it means to be a Pakistani woman in a heavily masculinized society. She has written several articles that specifically explore how Pakistani patriarchy is embedded in the country’s physical culture.
Pakistan’s stratified terrain is marked by several towering mountain peaks, traditionally inhabited by people of Pashtun ethnicity. The femininity of these strong, warrior-like people is rarely explored in literature, something Saeed strives to change.
His writing shines a light on female bodies not only living but thriving in these traditionally male settings, effectively exposing the poor correlation between toughness and masculinity.
Alongside Saeed’s writing career is his career as an instructor. The University’s MFA program has allowed her to teach various creative writing courses to students from all walks of life.
Her subversion of tradition carries over to her classroom, where she has implemented a modern, simplistic grading system: if it is clear that her students have fully invested in their writing, they will automatically receive an A.
“I feel like you have to create a very safe and vulnerable space for people to do their best,” Saeed explained. “I don’t like to put a value on creative work. That’s why when people talk about art or antiques, they say they’re priceless. Because putting a price on something is putting it in a box,” she added.
Saeed has often been stunned by the sheer size and compartmentalization of America’s intensely capitalist society, but she refuses to heed restrictive labels. She continues to explore and develop identities in both her writings and her teachings, never feeding on the constraint of categorization – a holistic and immeasurably powerful way of seeing the world around her.
Ava Aldrich can be reached at [email protected]