Shaheen Pasha on American Dream, Mental Illness, and Telling Stories

Shaheen Pasha on American Dream, Mental Illness, and Telling Stories
Photo via Shaheen Pasha

BOROUGH PARK – At five years old, many kids grab a hairbrush, use it as a microphone, and sing in front of the mirror. When Shaheen Pasha was five, she grabbed a hairbrush, used it as a microphone, stood in front of the mirror, and reported from Moscow. She didn’t even know where Moscow was.

Pasha, a journalist, and a professor, currently lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. Before that, she lived in Dubai. She’s lived in Cairo, in New Jersey, and in Pakistan. But she was born and raised in Brooklyn. She still calls herself a Brooklynite.

We first learned of Pasha through her incredibly powerful writing about the time a woman saved her family from homelessness in Borough Park and finally coming out about her late father’s mental illness – a bit of a taboo in many immigrant communities. She is working on a memoir about the immigrant life in Brooklyn in the 1980s.

This daughter, wife, and mother to three children, was born in Flushing, Queens to parents who’d immigrated from Karachi, Pakistan. She lived in Borough Park until she was 11, and then moved to East New York. She attended P.S.131, Brooklyn Technical High School, and her alma mater is Pace University. Her hangout spots?

“I was from a Pakistani family so my hangout spot was my home,” she laughed. In all seriousness though, her family would go to Kings Plaza Mall and Jacob Riis Park.

“For Decades, Shame Kept My Dad’s Schizophrenia Secret from our Pakistani Immigrant Community,” is a compelling story addressing the lack of discussion on mental illness in the Pakistani community, and also the hardest story she has ever written, she says.

Pasha’s father died seven years ago. He had schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel, and behave clearly. For a long time, it was something her family never spoke about. “What would people think? What are they going to say? They’re not going to like us,” was what her mother said after reading her story.

“The reason I wrote it was for that very reason,” Pasha said. “That mentality is so prevalent and I’m done with that. I am proud of my father and my mother and didn’t want to consistently have this image of us being perfect because that was never there.”

“I think for most of us in the Pakistani community, that is not true but yet we hide behind [that image] anyway, and I felt like that does a disservice to all of our stories and creates this false reality.”

Before she wrote the story, she asked her mother and siblings what they felt about it and whether or not they were okay with it. All three of them gave Pasha their blessings. But when it was published, it hurt her mother a lot.

“It was very devastating for my mom,” Pasha said. “She was happy I wrote it, but she was very, very emotional for a long time after she’d read it.”

Surprisingly, Pasha received tons of support from readers and many of them told her stories of their mother, father, or siblings having a mental illness.

“I had thought we were alone,” she said. “So many people had the same experience… and they were like this is the first time someone actually talked about it. I felt so empowered and I think that was why I ultimately needed to write this story because I needed to know if I was alone in this experience and it turned out I wasn’t. It was much more common in our community than I thought.”

Though this story was published after “Searching for the Woman Who Saved My Immigrant Family From Homelessness,” time-wise, it takes place before it.

“In this time of Islamophobia and hatred, I needed to understand what made a white stranger open her home to us,” she wrote.

When Pasha’s mother realized she needed support, as her father wasn’t well, her family moved to Pakistan. “We were struggling anyway. The American Dream hadn’t worked out for us just yet,” she said. When they moved to Pakistan, it became very clear they were not able to fit in. They didn’t speak Urdu very well, nor could they read or write it. “We were too American,” she said. So after six months, her mother brought them back, leaving her father in Pakistan because he had become very ill.

“She figured she was going to settle down, find a job, and then bring her husband back,” Pasha said. But when they came back to the US, they had nothing. No money, no job, and no support. And that’s what led them to be homeless in 1984– until a white woman took them into her home.

“[T]he stranger offered her spare bedroom, rent-free, to a homeless Pakistani woman and her three children,” she wrote. “That offer was a turning point in our lives, saving us from homeless shelters and destitution. And it created a folklore-like legend in our family about the kindly woman who opened her home to us.”

What prompted her to write these two of the hardest stories she has ever written?

“It finally came to the point where over the last couple of years everything that has been happening in the country sort of made me realize that we need to have these stories out there because these are very, very pure American stories,” she said.

“Everyone came here from different chances of life,” she said. “It is a nation filled with immigrants, so people at some point or another had these types of stories and I felt like it was important to start reminding people that I belong here, that we belong here, my family belongs here, and that we’re just as much part of this American thread as anybody else.”

Thinking about it from the perspective of the Pakistani community, Pasha felt that these vulnerable stories especially need to be told.

“I know growing up, you hid everything, you never talked about anything, everything was very private, which is fine, but there are all these struggles, all these judgments, and people felt so alone in those struggles with that judgment,” she said. “It’s important to remind people that we all struggle, we’re all in this together, and we have to be honest about it, and we have to support each other.”

She also felt like personal stories about struggles were dying out. Pasha’s children were born in the US and have never been to Pakistan. She feels like it’s more important to show people where their roots are and what their parents went through to come to America. Though not an immigrant herself, Pasha very much identifies with the immigrant struggles.

“My kids don’t see themselves tied in any way, shape, or form tied to immigrants,
she said. “But I think for me, even though I was born here, I was still a part of a family that was trying to figure out how to make it here.”

Pasha is also very vocal about the #MeToo movement. She has spoken about it in lectures and ties in race and culture, as she believes both are important to address, especially in the Muslim community. In our interview, she briefly discussed Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim professor teaching contemporary Islamic studies in Europe. He is being investigated for sexual assault.

“I think that we have a double-edged sword, which is really problematic in our community as Muslims,” she said. “Obviously we have predators in our community, every community has predators. But the problem is we are receiving such backlash for everything right now, that if any Muslim does anything bad, it suddenly becomes representative of the entire religion.”

Just a few weeks ago, an anonymous Pakistani woman went to Facebook to write about a sexual harassment incident she experienced during Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This prompted many other Muslim women to come out about their experiences in mosques and Hajj/Umrah (a lesser pilgrimage to Mecca), resulting in the #MosqueMeToo hashtag on social media.

“I think that is a huge, huge problem for our community,” Pasha said. “Even if you may believe the women are telling the truth, the instinct for a lot of people in our community is  ‘Well we can’t support you because then all of the sudden it’s going to be effective of the entire religion and we have to protect everyone, and why couldn’t you just keep this to yourself?'”

Pasha believes this is a problem that the Muslim community needs to confront today because if Muslims are worried about the way the world thinks about them, “then we’re just making it easier for predators to get by.”

But this isn’t only an internal problem amongst Muslims, she said. Anytime a Muslim woman comes forward with her experiences, everyone from the “outside community” reacts differently than when a non-Muslim woman comes forward.

“It immediately becomes ‘We have to save her, save her from Islam, save her from being Muslim, save her from these horrible Muslim men,'” she said. “So now women don’t want to have to defend themselves.”

Pasha has received a lot of hate mail from people who say she’s trying “to dirty the name of Islam.” Some tell her she’s not Muslim, and that is the problem, she said. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to brush it under the rug because we’re just worried about how it looks to the rest of the world.”

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To end the awful rhetoric, people need to be willing to engage with the community, and that’s especially important for those who have the ability and platform to do it, she says, believing it’s essential for her to speak out as a journalist.

“I teach other people, young women especially, that somebody has to be a voice somewhere,” she said. “I am a practicing Muslim, I don’t do hijab, and I’m liberal in some ways and conservative in others. I think that’s not a view we often times see. We either see someone who completely rejects Islam or someone who’s really conservative, and it immediately feeds into the other mentality. For me, I just want to say a lot of people are just normal, practicing, moderate Muslims… and we have a voice as well.”

For those facing adversity, her advice is “You have to willing to talk to people that don’t like you. It’s not your job to change their minds. Your job is to talk and get their stories. Let your work speak for itself.”