“I really like to take care of people,” states Nayab Khan (C ’18) as she prepares tea in her studio apartment on the 21st floor of Rodin. The tea she makes for herself is special—a box of pre–packaged powdered chai that she brought back to the US from Pakistan. She empties a packet of the already–sweetened mix into a mug of milk and continues to bustle around, apologizing for her reluctance to settle.
Nayab’s a resident advisor, though she admits she’s been a little absent on her floor recently—she’s trying to finish up her biology thesis about the function of a specific type of orofacial neuron. Along with studying biology, Nayab is simultaneously getting a Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership from Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. When her biology classes didn’t feel fulfilling to her during her sophomore year, she thought to herself: “As this privileged person who goes to Penn, how can I help people?’” She found the master's program, applied, and was accepted within a month.
She’s always looking for ways to make her life exactly what she wants it to be, and explains that her motto is: “if you don’t like something, fix it.”
A native New Yorker, Nayab grew up in East Elmhurst, a neighborhood in northwest Queens, in a three–bedroom home filled with 14 family members. She lived with her parents, two brothers, her sister, an aunt, uncle, and their four children, a cousin, and another uncle. Her father immigrated to the US in the '80s, and her mother followed in the '90s. Every summer growing up, Nayab would travel back to Pakistan with her family to visit relatives and reconnect with her culture. She’d have dental work done there too, and see her parents pour money into the procedures. That experience, as well as her experience volunteering in a dental clinic in Pakistan the summer after her freshman year, influenced Nayab’s plans for her future. She doesn’t only want to become a dentist, but one day she wants to open her own dental nonprofit that caters to the economically disadvantaged.
Nayab’s path to where she is now has not been straightforward. She applied to Penn as an international relations major, and came to Philadelphia without expecting to become the student leader she is today. On campus, she expected to find a community and family in the Muslim Student Association. She didn’t expect her involvement to necessarily go beyond that sense of family.
“It all changed when Trump got elected,” she says. Though now retired from all of her positions, Nayab served as the Vice President of the MSA, co–chair of Programs for Religion, Interfaith, & Spirituality Matters (PRISM), and a facilitator for the Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative (APALI). She’s constantly looking to connect communities on campus and help students struggling with their identities. “I’m like the mom of the MSA,” she confides over her chai.
Still, being a student leader comes with difficulties: “As much work as I did for the community, and as many meetings I went to for administrators, and as many events that I put on for the community, I think along the way I slowly became weaker and not as happy as I’d hoped.” The emotional labor of being a community advocate and student mentor made it difficult for Nayab to see the need to take care of herself in addition to others.
“I’m very openly vulnerable about my fear and about Islamophobia, but never about my own mental health,” she adds.
Penn’s supposed progressiveness isn’t nearly enough to protect Nayab from ignorant comments. The prevalence of Islamophobia on campus—whether it be direct or more subtle—is what pushed her to become more of an activist. She’s familiar with people at Penn asking her insensitive questions about her hijab, such as: “Do you have to shower with that?” and “Do you have to wear that when you get married?” and “Will your husband ever see your hair?”
At first, she was able to accept those questions, internalize them and laugh them off. “I think when I first came to Penn, I was all about educating people,” she notes. “When I was a freshman and sophomore my perspective was normalizing who I was and normalizing my hijab and my prayers and everything.” Now, she looks to celebrate difference, and her approach to educating others has changed to something closer to, “This is who I am and this is who you are, and that’s just how we have to accept each other.”
She emphasizes, “In the beginning, I would laugh and put it aside, but now I’m just like, bro, are you serious?”
She points out that there’s an abundance of Muslim YouTube personalities and visible Muslim celebrities like comedian Hasan Minhaj—who SPEC recently brought to Penn to perform—through which it’s easy to be exposed to Muslim culture. From Nayab’s perspective, it’s your own burden to educate yourself, not hers. However, she qualifies: “If people have serious questions, I’m more than willing to answer them and more than willing to educate people.”
There’s a fine line though, between “absurd” questions and innocent ones. She remembers a friend asking her, “Aren’t Muslim women oppressed?”
Her voice fills the room as she remembers answering him, “Am I oppressed? Do you think in any context I look oppressed to you? I’m probably the most outgoing, loud person on this campus.” She explained to him that, “Muslim women are not oppressed because of Islam, Muslim women are oppressed just because women are oppressed, because of patriarchy.”
“I think my hijab, if anything, allows me to be so outgoing,” she continues. She explains her decision to wear the hijab , “Nayab’s Kahani” (kahani is the Urdu word for story), “How do we as a society define beauty? Specifically, how do I define it? Do people’s preconceived notions about me even matter? Where does this all lie in the context of being a Muslim girl?”
Besides blatant ignorance, Nayab sees a more subtle manifestation of Islamophobia on campus in the form of false allyship. Around the time Penn was in panic mode about the price increase of chicken over rice at the halal carts, Trump’s Travel Ban 3.0 was causing more serious stress for Muslim students. Nayab found the intersection of these two events ironic. When it comes to being a true ally of Muslim students, Nayab sees students rarely showing their support when it matters.
This false allyship is part of a larger sense of apathy that Nayab detects on campus. “I wish people just cared about other communities. When a community is being hurt, I wish people truly empathized and supported them and were there for them.”
“I think at Penn we’ve forgotten how to just be present for each other,” she says. “I think we’re so competitive that we forget to take care of one another.”
Beyond her professional pursuits, Nayab sees a more abstract future for herself, one built on the confidence and activism that she’s been developing the past four years. “I see myself as a really outspoken, Muslim Pakistani girl who’s American and really out there trying to make a voice for other Muslim people.” She wants to continue “talking about Islamophobia and talking about [her] experiences and being that role model for young Muslim girls that [she] never had growing up, and let them know that they can pursue science, and do advocacy, and do activism.”
She thinks for a moment, then adds, “One thing I do see myself as is more fashionable, more hipster, more mipster.” Mipster—a combination of the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘hipster.’
Read about the rest of the students profiled for 34th Street Magazine's Penn 10 project here.