ON a recent Saturday afternoon, Rasham Baig was standing in the middle of Daunt square in Cork city, addressing a crowd attending an anti-racism demonstration.
The 23-year-old UCC student takes special pride in being “loud” and is unapologetic for “speaking her truth”. She also takes great pride in being able to connect with a crowd.
“I don’t think it’s what I say, I think it’s the way I say it,” she reasons.
Long before she was speaking her mind in Cork city, Rasham was a shy student in her home country of Pakistan, harbouring dreams of becoming a pilot.
The young woman grew up with her grandmother and brother while her father was engaged in business abroad, first in the Netherlands, then here in Ireland. He did not want to uproot his children at an early age.
“My dad wanted me and my brother to stay in Pakistan until secondary school so that we knew about our roots and our culture,” explains Rasham, whose father is now the owner of a restaurant in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary,
The young woman says that she felt unsafe going outside “without a male figure” in her home town. The concentration of extremist groups in Pakistan can make it an unsafe environment for women.
In 2012, Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for advocating girls’ education, but survived. She was later jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.
Rasham speaks of discrimination within her birth country’s education system, where students who don’t speak English with a “foreign accent” are being shunned.
The UCC student, who is studying Politics and wants to go on to gain a Masters in Law, says she belonged to that group, and recalls envying a classmate who spoke English with an American accent.
“She was participating in everything, and I used to feel left out, and if I asked ‘Why can’t I participate in things’, they’d be like, ‘You don’t have an accent’,” she recalls.
“Until I came to Ireland, I thought maybe I’d never be able to do anything.”
Rasham was reunited with her father in Cork at the age of 14, stepping inside an entirely new world she both feared and desired.
“I was really depressed for the first two years,” she recounts.
In secondary school, the young Muslim woman recalls being mocked by one fellow pupil for confiding that she couldn’t have sex before marriage, and unkind words have a tendency to linger.
“So, I got asked ‘Have you ever had sex?’ I was like, no, I can’t do it until I get married because that’s not in my religion and culture,” she says.
“And the girl was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re not a human being’. So, I explained to her about my religion, and she goes, like, ‘Stupid religion’.
The first time that Rasham felt truly happy was when she expressed herself in front of an audience. That day, a nurse had come to her school to discuss her profession; and, uncharacteristically, Rasham volunteered to deliver a thank-you speech to the nurse in front of everyone.
“I don’t know why, I just raised my hand out of nowhere,” she recalls. “That was the first time I gave a speech.
Once I was done, all of my teachers were like ‘Are you into public speaking?’ I said, ‘I’m not, but I really want to participate’.”
Rasham went on to shine at school debates from that day on, often highlighting her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts.
“The only way I could get out of depression was to voice my opinion,” she reasons.
Now a savvy public speaker, she has spoken in front of crowds as large as 600 people, even sharing the stage with Fianna Fáil Senator, Mark Daly.
Her primary speech topics include racism, xenophobia, mental health and Islamophobia. She vehemently opposes what she calls the “extremist take on Islam”.
This young woman often wonders if her campaigning zeal has been fuelled by years of being refused a voice.
“I always thought, back in Pakistan, that maybe my teachers didn’t trust me with these things,” she says. “But, you know, it doesn’t matter who trusts your abilities as long as you do.”
Rasham came to Cork wearing the Islamic hijab, but she caught herself covering her hair out of obligation and stopped.
“I did it only for six months; I’m not going to lie, some days I was doing it, some days I wasn’t doing it,” she says.
“So, I was like; there’s no point if I cannot keep up with it.”
She has recently started dating a Canadian Muslim, and insists that her supportive boyfriend “deserves a mention” in the article.
“Maybe write ‘best friend’ — no, I’m kidding, I don’t mind,” Rasham says, with a shy laugh.
She could not attend pilot school in Dublin to pursue her dream of being a pilot, but that hasn’t stopped Rasham from aiming high.
“I would love to one day represent not just my community, but the entire country,” she says.
“But I would like to do my Masters in Law first, I still have a long way to go.”