For five years in Bangladesh, I attended a private, coed primary school. Every day when I came to class, I sat at the back with all the other girls, while the boys sat in the front row. Girls were given the old textbooks, whereas boys were given new textbooks. Also, when girls raised their hands to answer a question, most teachers would not call on them to respond.
The unfairness of this two-tiered system was lost on me at the time. As a girl in Bangladesh, I understand this not as inequality, but as a conviction . It is an accepted practice to discriminate against girls regarding many issues like education, health, and economic opportunities. I did not have the faintest idea that girls were marginalized in many aspects of life in Bangladesh. We were made to believe that it is okay for girls to have fewer opportunities. I was taught that I can’t have the same freedom, resources, and opportunities as boys can have. As a result, a kind of inferiority complex took hold of me.
A few years later, after arriving in the United States, I enrolled in school. When I walked into the classroom for the first time, I lowered my head, found a place in the back of the room, and sat on the floor. I shuffled timidly and looked toward Ms. James. She pursed her lips and frowned. I panicked. Did I do something wrong? Was I disrespectful? Did I obey the rule? My mind was racing.
“Umme, what are you doing?” she asked calmly.
I didn’t respond.
“Come sit at the front, next to Jack, okay?” She smiled and reached out her hand, pulling me forward and leading me to the first row to sit next to a boy, something I would never dream of doing back home.
There, sitting at the front of the classroom, I felt an excited tingle in my stomach. This is where I wanted to be, this is where I belonged. At the front of the classroom, besides the boys and, of course, the girls.
That brand new seat made me more confident and more motivated to face challenges and opportunities that in my homeland I was made to believe were meant for boys only.
Umme Orthy is a graduating senior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia, PA. She is headed to Haverford College this fall. She loves traveling, art, spontaneous weekend outings, and music.