“We’re halfway through the summer. Are we going to New York or what?” I asked my older sister Yasmin. She had come to visit us at our house back in my country, Yemen. We were in the room we’d shared until she got married and moved away.
“Do you really want to go?” she replied, opening the Kit Kat bar she had in her hand.
“Yes and no,” I answered as I lay down on my bed. “I want to stay here for you and all our extended family, but I also want to see Dad and New York City.”
“What’s the rush, then? It’s not like you’re going to school when you get there,” she said.
In my family, most men believe that the best place for a woman is in the house and the best job for us women is to cook, clean and raise a family. Many girls in my family—including Yasmin—stop going to school before high school, and none have gone to college. Girls live with their families until they are 15 or a little older, then it’s time to say goodbye to being single and hello to marriage.
An Unbroken Tradition
My religion (Islam) is not against girls being educated. In fact our Prophet Mohammed, may peace be upon him, said that we should seek education even if we have to go to China for it. The problem isn’t my culture either, since many Yemeni girls are educated and have jobs. Where my family’s tradition came from, I don’t know. But so far, no one has broken it.
I never imagined my destiny would be any different. In my country I was an excellent student and teachers loved me. In 7th grade, I was first in my class. They put my name in big letters on a piece of paper and hung it up in the main hallway. I felt so proud of myself.
I didn’t mind leaving school at any time, though, because I knew the path girls in my family followed and I didn’t expect anything else. When we came to the United States the first time (when I was 5—we stayed for a few years), my older sisters were teenagers and they didn’t get a chance to go to school, even though they really wanted to go and learn English. So when I was 14 years old and I heard that we were moving back to the US, I figured I wouldn’t be going to school anymore.
The Best Thing for Me
Then we got to New York, and my dad announced he was planning to enroll my sister Lebeya and me in school. I was surprised. From what I used to see on TV, American high schools were another planet compared to schools in Yemen. I wasn’t used to going to school with boys, or talking to them. In fact, I was a little worried: I’d heard that many Yemeni students who go to American high schools start to do what the other kids are doing, like having relationships and even drinking, neither of which is allowed by my religion. I’d expected my dad would want to keep my sister and me away from this environment. (My mom wants us to be educated, as she never had the chance to be, but like most Yemeni women she follows her husband’s decisions.)
But my dad was determined. When my oldest sisters didn’t go to school in New York, that affected their lives and his. They couldn’t go out alone because they didn’t understand English and couldn’t communicate. My dad had to translate for them at doctors’ appointments. When we moved to New York, he said putting my sister and me in school would help us become independent so we could help ourselves when necessary.
For my part, I decided that since I had the chance to go to school, I would definitely take it. Today my sisters are both married and have children sweet as honey, but they still wish they had gone to school here and learned to speak English. I saw from my sisters’ experience that education was the best thing for me, and I felt that going to school might be fun and a way to get out of the house. I had no idea what it would become to me.
‘Way to Go, Dad!’
While we were getting records and report cards sent from Yemen to New York so my sister and I could enroll here, the men in my extended family started telling my dad that we would get ourselves into trouble and hurt the family’s reputation. They thought that high school in America would Americanize us, causing us to drop the traditions we’d been learning our entire lives and pick up others.
One day my dad was on the phone with one of my cousins and I heard some of my dad’s replies. (It’s not my fault he thought that I was sleeping when I wasn’t.) They went like this:
“They are my daughters and I have raised them right. I know what is good for them.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“I don’t care what they say, I have listened to you guys once and I won’t make that mistake again.”
After I heard that, I was saying to myself, “Way to go, Dad!” I saw my father as someone who is ready to make a change and someone who really cares about his daughters’ education; I saw him in a way that made me feel proud to be the daughter of Ali Almansouri. I knew that my dad had put all his trust in us and this made me want to be on my best behavior.
In Love With School Again
My first day at Brooklyn International High School was scary because I was starting 9th grade at the end of September and I was the new girl. I felt lonely at first, but luckily my English was OK from living here as a kid. By second period I’d talked to two Hispanic girls and we became friends. My teachers were so nice to me; they helped me when I needed help and they always asked me how I was doing. I began to love school once again. I worked hard and got excellent grades. My classmates started telling me, “You’re so smart.”
I don’t believe that I’m as smart as they say, but I do believe that I am clever. Because I did well, ideas of actually graduating started coming into my head. My love for school grew, especially when I learned new things, went on trips or met new friends.
“You know that I will be the first girl from our family to actually go to college,” I said one day to my sisters and a group of other girls, while we were sitting together talking.
“Yeah, and you’ll go to the University of Kitchen,” my younger cousin said.
“And earn your cooking degree,” my sister added.
Then they all started laughing, including me. “You’ll see when I become the first Almansouri girl to go to college and break the ‘girls don’t go to college’ rule,” I said. “You’ll see what I will do.”
Future in Question
The truth is, though, that there is always a question mark over my future. In spite of the things I overheard my dad say on the phone, his decisions about my future are not all made yet. My dad doesn’t really follow up on my schoolwork, and when opportunities come up—like leadership programs, after-school activities or writing for Youth Communication—it’s not easily that he lets me participate.
I think that even though he put me in school, sometimes he still thinks the way other men in my family do. This worries me, because it makes me think he may not allow me to finish the path that he let me start. However, if I give him a great speech about why he should let me do some extracurricular thing, and if I’m persistent, he usually gives in. I think that when I put it in his head that I can benefit a lot from these things, he sees it, and that gives me hope for the future.
My being allowed to finish high school and go to college depends on two people: Dad and me. I will never disobey him because he is everything to me. My basic hope is that we don’t go back to Yemen before I graduate from high school. Then, if my dad lets me, I’d prefer to put off marriage until I am settled in college.
Hopes and Fears
What will actually happen, I don’t know. My dad hasn’t told me what he’s thinking. Even though I hate not knowing what’s going to be next, in another way I don’t want the topic to come up yet. I’m afraid of the answer I’ll get, in case it’s a “no.” Anyway, as they say, you have to walk up the ladder step by step or you’ll fall down.
When I’m feeling hopeful, I think my dad will let me go to college. I want to attend a good one like Columbia University, major in English or journalism and also study biology. I see my future as a finishing line with red and white stripes, and I see myself crossing the line, then getting my prize—in other words, working in a career and feeling true power and independence. I also want to feel useful to the world and to people around me. I want to learn more and be an educated person.
Sometimes, though, I feel that everything I do is for no reason and that I will never be able to go to college or even finish high school. I worry that if I do graduate from high school, my dad will say, “I already let you finish high school and we don’t have women who go to college in this family.” I worry about the pressure that will be on him if he does let me go to college. Our family made such a big deal about us going to high school, I can’t imagine what they would say about college.
Nightmare of One Flavor
When I hear things like, “Look—girls your age are getting married and soon it will be your turn,” those comments are like rockets landing in my ears. I find a place to be alone and think to myself, “All this hard work, these top grades, these compliments, for what? For me to remember when I’m seasoning the soup. Why did they put me in the race when I had no interest in participating? They put the idea in my head, made me like it and actually work toward something—all so that when I reach the finish line they’ll tell me I can’t cross it.”
I imagine watching others cross the line without me, and hunt myself down for all the time I spent dreaming of things I want to accomplish. “Maybe it’s not time, Orubba,” I think. “Maybe the girl that will break your family’s record hasn’t been born yet.”
With that I cry myself to sleep. Sometimes I even have nightmares about not finishing high school. A lot of people think that it’s no big deal; I’ll get married and my husband will give me everything I need. But that’s not enough for me because I want my life to have different flavors and taste them all, not just repeat the same flavor over and over every day. I also want to feel that I’m prepared if something happens to my husband. How will I feed my children? I want to have a weapon in my hand and education is one weapon that never hurts anyone, but actually helps.
Seeing the Possibilities
In Yemen, I always thought that going to college was a good thing for girls, but I didn’t feel envious of the girls from other families who could go. Since I came to the US, though, I have been thinking more about my future and I want more out of life. Because I see college as a possibility for me, but not a sure thing, today I feel envious toward Yemeni girls who know they can go to college.
Sometimes I get mad that my family keeps on pushing boys to go to college, even though most of them don’t have any interest, while some of us girls are ready to work for it and never get a chance. Other times, I tell myself that whatever education I end up with is better than nothing. I’m even a little afraid of going to college in case I fail. I’m torn between two things, but the tear is not straight down the middle. I’m happy that my obsession with success is greater than my worries.
I’ll Reward His Trust
Now I’m a junior, my grades are still excellent, and my desire to live my dream is greater than ever. I agree with some of my family’s traditions, like girls not going out alone and not sleeping at anyone’s house outside the family. But the education issue is too much. If they give all us girls a chance and support us, we can help our family reach higher than ever before. If I go to college, I’ll open a path and be a role model for future generations of girls in the family, teaching them not to give up.
If my father’s decision is for me to go to college, he will raise his head high and tell everyone who wanted to stand in my way that they were wrong; that he is happy and proud that he gave us a chance that a lot of parents in my family took away from their girls. I want him to be really pleased with what I accomplish.
Everything I become will be because of the trust he gave me. I will keep my religion and my traditions, but I will follow my dreams as long as I know that what I’m doing is right. I have no problem with cooking and cleaning, as long as it is a side order with my dream. But if my dad doesn’t support my dream, then everything that I have planned for won’t be. That’s what causes me nightmares instead of dreams.
After writing this story, Orubba went on to City College of New York-CUNY, where she earned double BA degrees in English and history. She was named salutatorian of her class in 2016. At her graduation ceremony, Orubba delivered a speech expressing her gratitude for her father’s encouragement and support. She so impressed fellow graduates and guests– including First Lady Michelle Obama– that she received an invitation to the White House’s United State of Women Summit. Orubba is now an advocate for other young women in her culture to stand up for their rights to an education.