Read the incredible Humans of New York origin story of Atoms as-told by our co-founder: Sidra Qasim

On January 28th 2021, Humans of New York released an 11-part story about Atoms co-founder Sidra Qasim. Follow along and read below about her incredible journey.

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“There is a moment I’ll never forget. My mother was teaching a class at our home, and my father hit her in front of the students. It was humiliating. She was an esteemed teacher in our town. After it happened, I asked her: ‘How could you possibly stay with him?’ She replied: ‘Boys will be boys. It’s a woman’s job to hold the home together.’ It’s the same story taught to every Pakistani girl. We are raised from a young age to believe that our purpose in life is to find and keep a husband. We are taught to cook, and clean, and never complain.

It’s different for boys. They are allowed to grow, and work, and find their own way. But a daughter has just one path: to marry as quickly as possible. I always wanted more from life, even as a child. I wanted to create something. I wanted to be somebody. But there was nowhere to look for inspiration. The internet didn’t exist back then. And even on our television shows— women who wanted more than a family were depicted as villains. Maybe if a girl had perfect grades, then she could become a doctor or lawyer. But that wasn’t me. My grades were only average. I remember when I was sixteen years old, I secretly recorded my voice and mailed the tape to a local radio station. I thought maybe I could host my own program. But my mother found the package and removed it from the post. Then a few months later I had my first meeting with a matchmaker.

My mother coached me to keep my head down. She warned me not to be clever, and to answer every question with a single sentence. But none of the questions were about my personality. All of them were about my cooking, and cleaning, and sewing. At one point I got aggressive. I told the matchmaker that I had no interest in marriage. But she only laughed at this. ‘I hear that from every girl,’ she answered. ‘But they always fall in love with their husbands. Because marriage is a beautiful thing.’ For the next several months I rejected every suitor who came to our home. I kept hoping that my parents would change their mind. They were liberal people. Both of them were educators. But during my 12th grade year they took a pilgrimage to Mecca. And when they returned, things got even worse.”

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“Suddenly the science and literature books disappeared from our home. They were replaced by Islamic books, all of which were written by men. The rules were tightened. Our dress code became very strict. And if I ever tried to question these things, I could be hit in front of my younger siblings. More and more matchmakers began coming to our home, and the pressure to marry became relentless. I tried my best to focus on my studies. My aunt was working as a private tutor, and she would sometimes help me prepare for exams, so most afternoons I would escape to her house.

It was there that I first met Waqas. He was one of my aunt’s students. He had a patchy beard, and an untucked shirt, and a shy demeanor. He seemed serious about his studies, but there was a mischievous smile. One afternoon I noticed that he had given my aunt a book. It was a very bad book—some cheap teenage romance. So when he returned for his next session, I offered him something more refined. My choice was a famous novel called Raja Gihd, and I suggested that we read it together. The book was about a girl who falls in love with her teacher. We agreed to read ten pages at a time, and afterward we would meet to discuss. During these meetings we would talk about much more than the story. We’d discuss life, and society, and human emotions. It became the only chance I had to exchange my ideas with anyone. And Waqas took my opinions seriously. Sometimes he’d bring his diary with him, where he’d copied a lot of poems from different poets. Occasionally he’d read them out loud to me. Many were philosophical. And some were romantic, but I never felt like I was being courted.

Perhaps because he was a year younger than me. Or maybe because he was from a different caste. But it never seemed possible for the two of us to ever be more than friends. After several months of meeting together, Waqas had to leave for college in Lahore. At the end of our final discussion, he asked me to write a poem in his diary. It was the first poem I’d ever written. And it was a poem of departure. I wouldn’t see Waqas again for 1.5 years.”