The fault in our star

Pakistan’s Sitara Brooj Akbar, the youngest student to pass O Level exams, hasn’t received any recognition at home owing to her Ahmadiyya identity

In a town that is always ringing with slogans and high on religious hatred, lived Sitara. Tiny and beautiful like her name, she had an unquenchable thirst to learn new things and phenomena around her. She grew up questioning everything around us. Such was the scale of her curiosity that her school teachers gave up on her, resulting in her parents quitting their jobs to open up their own school. She remained incurable.

She continued suffering – and questioning; until she achieved. A world record for being the youngest person to pass the O level exams.

Belonging to the minority Ahmadiyya sect, Muhammad Ali Akbar has seen a lot of difficulties in his life. Snatched away with the right to practice his religion, he got arrested in ’99 over a fake police case registered by the local MPA. A hostile country, with equally unfriendly people and daughter who refused to go by the conventions; he couldn’t have seen more.

Living in self-exile with his family, he is optimistic about a Pakistan that his forefathers aspired – a Pakistan that Jinnah envisioned.

Being a crazy mother of a crazy child, Mrs. Bushra Akbar has been the biggest support to Sitara. She faced her refusal to learn things through cramming very patiently and instead of forcing her into it. She realized her daughter’s extraordinary qualities and helped her through the process of making world records.

I spoke to Sitara recently. Apart from being a brilliant student, she is an excellent speaker.

Umer: So Sitara, tell me about your early life. How did you grow up to be such a bright kid?

Sitara: Before I was born, my mother saw a dream about a bright star that came very close to the earth, followed by a moon. I was named Sitara Brooj Akbar (The brightest star in the constellation) by a respected and noble lady; Syeda Tahira Sadiqa Nasir Sahiba. I came into being on the tenth of February, 2000 in a small town called Chenab Nagar (Rabwah). I am the eldest of five siblings; four sisters and one brother, the youngest two of whom are a set of twins all of them ,taught by me at home. At the age of five, I got admission in a local school and was the lowest ranked student in the school year. Soon, my mother realized that taking in information of any kind before understanding the whole concept was no less than a challenge for me.

Umer: After such a rough start, who motivated you into overcoming these hurdles?

Sitara: My mother taught tuition in the evening after coming back from school. She started teaching me along with her students, and discovered that my favorite was Chemistry and since then, my regular schooling became affected by my constant habit of questioning things with an adamant refusal towards cramming and eventually, I had to leave school. My parents decided to open up a private school for their daughter, quitting their jobs in the process. For a year, I went there but it would not quench my thirst for knowledge so that had to end as well. Meanwhile, I learned a lot of things, asking my mom around in the kitchen as she cooked. My grandfather, late Muhammad Aslam Nasir Sahib started telling me stories about Dr. Abdus Salam and Ms. Marie Curie and taught me to help others.

By the age of 6, I was fluent in spoken English, and it was then that I found my love for reading. My parents would travel to Faisalabad, a city about an hour's drive from my town, to buy me novels and stories. This developed my love for reading which continues to grow still.

Umer: Can you walk our readers through the journey to achieve the feat no one has ever accomplished.

Sitara: I gave my O Level Chemistry at the age of 9. By eleven, I had completed eleven years of international education by appearing in Biology, Physics, English and Mathematics GCSE. I passed my International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in the same year and got an overall band of 7. I started writing to different universities for pursuing higher education and got responses, appreciating me but apologized on the matter of an admission due to my age. This was disappointing for me and disturbed my education. My Government that appreciated every kid achieving something even at a small scale, never paid heed to me.

Umer: What are your plans for the future?

Sitara: I have been interested in sciences since a very young age and am working towards fulfilling my dream to become a researcher in the field of biochemistry because it fascinates me. I’m looking forward to studying in a good university, taking the first step towards my dream of bringing a positive change in this world. Studying chemistry and biology in my advanced levels has been a great experience and has only strengthened my belief that this is the subject area that I want to pursue in the future. There are many mysteries unsolved and many cures yet to be found; I want to make my contribution to humanity through science.

Umer: You represent a very positive face of the otherwise hopeless and instable country. Did you get any support from the government of Pakistan?

Sitara: I thought that since the world had advanced so much, I would not go unnoticed; I created multiple world records for being the youngest O Level candidate, youngest IELTS candidate in the world and was appreciated by British Council too, who wrote a blog about me, included me in their written publications. I got international fame through the electronic and print media but got totally ignored by the otherwise active CM of Punjab.

Umer: Sitara, you have come a long way. How will you describe the role on your parents?

Sitara: My parents have always supported me, working day and night to fulfill my dreams. I owe all of my accomplishments to them.

Umer: What are your plans to work for the betterment of Pakistan?

Sitara: I believe that a life that isn't lived serving humanity is not one that is worth living and I want to make my contribution to the noble and worthy cause of Pakistan Youth Forum. I will be serving as the Youth Ambassador for PYF and am the youngest working member of the team. I am working with the education committee and will be mentoring Pakistani students in schools here in the UAE, so that they do not have to fight their battles alone because a child without education is like a bird without wings. I will use this as a medium to further understand the problems. My contribution may be small but just because our work isn't quantifiable, doesn't mean it is not serving humanity and we should all try to make our contribution to this good cause. I'll also be the youngest teacher, helping them with public speaking and English enhancement.

A girl so bright, with such positive ideals and aspirations is waiting for recognition. A kid who sees Naran and Kaghan even in Europe has been chased away from the country. Children of her age roam around freely, enjoying their lives, while Sitara couldn’t step out without two armed guards because it wasn’t safe.

Our state apparatus and general public need to give up on the decades old tradition of alienating and marginalizing religious minorities. It is about time we recognized their achievements and appreciated their efforts for representing Pakistan in a positive light. Otherwise, there are chances that stars like her, having been deprived of light, might get lost in the darkness.

Umer Ali is an Islamabad-based journalist who reads and writes about Pakistan and its history. He aspires to see a tolerant and progressive Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter

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