- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Shaezmina Khan ’19 returned to Lawrenceville on March 23 to discuss her identity as a Muslim American woman. Now a senior at Yale, Khan took the stage at her alma mater and said, ““I remember when I was at Lawrenceville and came to Smeetings myself – I always joked and said, ‘If I am ever invited back to speak at a School meeting, that’s how I’ll know I’ve made it.’ I guess I made it and I couldn’t be more honored and happier to be back.”
Khan has, indeed, “made it.” She graduates from Yale College this spring with a degree in affairs and a certificate in Human Rights from Yale Law School. She served as Executive Director of Yale International Relations Association (the college’s largest undergraduate student organization) and as President of the Muslim Students Association. She is a Research Assistant at Yale Law School and the Jackson School for Global Affairs. Next year, Khan will be pursuing her MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy from the University of Oxford in the U.K. as a Rotary Global Grant Scholar.
Khan recalled that she remembered Islam as being “a very central part” of her childhood and that her family was “no different than the average Muslim-American family.” She and her sister, Pashmina (Lawrenceville Class of 2021), were taught that no identity of theirs was mutually exclusive – being Muslim and being American were “incredibly compatible.”
She began wearing the hijab in seventh grade. “I really fell in love with the entire concept of the hijab and understood why it was so important to me and my own identity. It reflected my personal devotion to God and allowed my self-perception to be a lot less attached to my outward beauty. It served as a reminder that my worth stemmed from a much deeper place than how I looked,” Khan explained.
Wearing the hijab was important to Khan, but it also made her hyper-aware of her identity as a Muslim woman. “And this might just be because of how strongly we all, as Lawrentians, want to feel a sense of belonging,” she said. Khan became more aware of the stereotypes surrounding Muslim women at large in America and “got to work” to prove them wrong. She became President of Lawrenceville’s Muslim Students Organization, Head Delegate of the Model United Nations, President of the Religious Life and Diversity Councils, and Student Council Diversity Representative.
“And in all of my interactions with Lawrenceville students, I tried to break the 'oppressed Muslim woman' stereotype,” she said. “Anytime someone asked about my hijab, I went out of my way to tell them I wasn’t forced to wear it, but that it was a choice – even if that had nothing to do with the question at hand.”
Once she arrived at Yale, Khan said, the “exhaustion” of fighting the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ stereotype finally caught up with me. . . . in the aim of fitting in and turning myself into a ‘positive ambassador of Islam’ I was self-essentializing. My identity became reduced to a single element – being Muslim - and virtually every aspect of my everyday life felt politicized. I could feel three-dimensional me collapsing into a cardboard box. It was a heavy burden on me, taking the reputation of an entire religion on to my shoulders.”
At Yale, she joined groups, clubs, and teams simply as herself, without feeling she needed to prove herself or her “normality” to anyone. “I am no longer concerned with what the ‘acceptable moderate Muslim’ looks like in the eyes of others,” she said. “I am focused on being myself and not having to prove myself as adequately human. To those who can’t see my humanity and dimensionality, there isn’t much to say except that is unfortunate for them.”
Her four years at Lawrenceville, she said, have been the best time of her life thus far. Khan encouraged Lawrentians not to fall into the trap of trying to reduce their identities into a single element. “You were hand-picked to be at this school because of your uniqueness,” she said. “We need to try so hard not to conform to every single personal sitting next to us because that robs Lawrenceville of its true diversity and the authenticity of the students as well.”
Khan plans to pursue a career working for the U.S. federal government, most likely in the realm of diplomacy. We may even see her running for congress or as a United Nations delegate some day. Her talk was part of a School-wide celebration of Women’s History Month.
For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.