Sitara Brooj Akbar fulfils her name as an academic star who sat her first O Level at the astonishing age of 9 and then completed her A Levels by 13. She has set multiple world records in education, and is a gold medallist awarded by the President of Pakistan and earned a Talented Children’s Award from Pakistan’s Prime Minister. All of this she achieved hailing from a modest village in the Punjab province of Pakistan. She has also achieved the highest band score, 9, and set a world record at the youngest age (15), in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). She is the Youth Ambassador for the Pakistan Youth Forum (PYF) in Dubai. Munavara Ghauri [MG], Editor of the Women’s Section for The Review of Religions, had the opportunity to interview Sitara Brooj Akbar [SA] and learn something of her illustrious academic career, which is eclipsed only by the philanthropic spirit of Sitara herself.
MG: You completed 5 O Levels at the tender age of 11. How did this come about?
SA: When I was young, my grandfather Muhammad Aslam Nasir – who was the headmaster at a government school – used to tell me stories about great people who changed the world such as Sir Zafirullah Khan, Dr Abdus Salam and Marie Curie. He used to remind me of how precious the time each person is given is and to use it in the most responsible way possible. My grandfather always told me to understand concepts rather than just memorising as that is how true knowledge comes about. My mother, who is also a teacher, taught tuition in the evening after coming back from school. She started teaching me along with her students and discovered that my favourite was Chemistry, and I gave my first O Level at the age of 9 which was the start of my journey.
MG: Was your passion for learning something your parents’ cultivated in you or was it something inherent in your nature?
SA: I have always loved gaining as much knowledge as possible from wherever or in whatever form it comes. Ever since I learned to read, my parents literally had to bulk purchase books in sacks every week to keep up with the demand. For the sake of it, I believe it was the other way around as I used to be the one pressurising my parents to get more books and arrange resources so I could quench my thirst for knowledge. I have seen and been through the feeling which little kids get when waking up early in the morning to go to school, and have seen them sobbing because of it. I, on the other hand, didn’t have to go through all of this as a self-taught individual.
MG: Sitara, whilst studying for your O Levels at the age of 10/11, how did it feel to be interacting and learning alongside students who were much older than yourself, as O Level students are generally 15/16-year-olds?
SA: It is always good to learn from the people who walked the path before you. And in that sense, I have been lucky to get these sorts of opportunities in my life to learn by looking at those above me. Those close to my age can offer me understanding and support while we go through all the mistakes and learning curves together, but our age fellows seldom have the wisdom that can only come from experience so following Islam’s teachings of listening and following our elders has been a corner-stone in my journey.
MG: Clearly, you are gifted with exceptional intelligence. How did your 11-year-old classmates react to your accomplishments and the national coverage of your academic achievements?
SA: God makes each and every child exceptional, I have said before that all children are gifted but some of us just open our packages earlier than others. How and if we use our given assets depends on opportunities and motivation to do so. I didn’t have much to boast about at school honestly, at that point in time I had been the lowest-ranked in my class before going on to give my IGCSEs so it was as much a shock to them as to me! As I was quite young at the time and already being homeschooled, I don’t remember much but I never thought of these achievements as my own, rather something I believe was made possible through the support of everyone around me and so hopefully the joy was shared as well.
MG: You are part of a persecuted Community (the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) in Pakistan. There was a lot of national coverage of your academic achievements but this fact was never mentioned. How did you feel about this?
SA: Actions speak louder than words and though they try not to mention it, it is widely known. If you look up my name the third most frequently searched term is about my beliefs and while they might not state it explicitly, them acknowledging the fact when appreciating the achievements is enough for me.
MG: Sitara, you have recently completed a BSc (Hons) in Biomedical Science at Leicester University, England, by the age of 20. What are your future goals now?
SA: I have so many dreams and hopes, (with new additions nearly every day) that it would be difficult to put them into words. Growing up, I have learned that a life that isn’t lived serving humanity is not worth living and I want to research to eventually provide treatments for what are currently thought to be terminal diseases. I wish to promote education and research in my country and hope to set up institutes in line with the goal that it will be accessible for everyone regardless of their background. I wish to serve to the best of my ability in whatever capacity God chooses for me and hope to leave the world a better place than how I found it.
MG: What are CSS exams if you don’t mind me asking?
SA: The CSS (Central Superior Services) exams are to select people for the civil service in various government areas such as the Foreign Service etc. It’s ok as the general public don’t know much about them.
MG: You have been a Youth Ambassador for Pakistan Association, Dubai. Who approached you to take on this role and what did it entail?
SA: I joined the newly founded PYF in Dubai after being approached by Dr Jamila Haq, the founder, who wanted to inspire and equip the Pakistani youth in UAE, by giving them purpose and opportunities. The organisation works in two main categories, providing better healthcare and education opportunities to the community, and has achieved wonderful milestones since its founding with hundreds of volunteers actively working to make lives better. My role as the ambassador has been to represent and spread the message of PYF and it has been an honour being part of something so amazing and seeing it grow over the years.
The founding father of UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan’s vision was primarily of an educated and empowered youth with women playing an equal role in society and the current leadership all put great emphasis on that. So, it does translate into everyday life and the nation’s prosperity as a whole. The attitude, in turn, is vastly different.
MG: So, has your faith influenced your academic pursuits?
SA: As Muslims, our religion demands of us to seek knowledge wherever possible, even if we have to go to China to learn (as the Holy Prophet of Islam (sa) said). There is no age limit to this, as the words of the Holy Prophet (sa) were that we should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Islam does not in any way act as a barrier in the way of women reaching their potential as is sometimes alleged. Rather, it actually pushes us to excel and increase our talents. We are encouraged to never let golden educational opportunities pass us by, but instead, grasp them and seek to achieve excellence in our chosen fields of interest – whether it is science or other subjects…and that’s what I try to do.
MG: I don’t think anyone could argue that you have wasted opportunities Sitara! You achieved qualifications as a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) in 2017 in Dubai. This sounds a rather intriguing qualification. Can you explain what it enables you to do and how you developed an interest in such a niche field?
SA: A lot of the problems in developing countries stem from the mishandling of our national assets by a select few corrupt people. In Pakistan especially, bribery and nepotism are common so taking steps to stop it should be our first priority and that can be done through preventing money laundering from taking place, essentially cutting the cycle off and my desire for change inspired me towards the field. The CAMS certification also covers the prevention of terrorism financing and human trafficking and that is the aspect I’m aiming to specialise in further.
MG: These are gravely important issues Sitara. Is there anything on an individual level that you think we can do to help prevent the financing of terrorism and human trafficking?
SA: Awareness on an individual scale would be the first step! Many people simply know these things happen yet have no clue how exactly so there is dire need to educate the masses. For example, terrorists often use charity organisations promised to provide relief in suffering areas as a front to raise their funding yet and innocent people contribute out of compassion and trust without knowing where the money is being spent or who exactly they are donating to.
The second step is towards betterment, and one more important on a national scale would be the need for accountability of our agencies and updated legislation. Pakistan is decades behind in terms of keeping up with such criminals and there are very few people who are equipped with dealing with these problems, unfortunately. If the investigation does find these practices taking place, we have limited options in terms of prosecution, but hopefully, the recently added encouragement from FATF and the government’s commitment will start bringing change about soon. InshAllah.
MG: You recently studied in Leicester. How have you found British culture as compared with Pakistani and Middle Eastern society?
SA: The life of a nation resides in the hearts and soul of its people and England is no doubt a very unique place to live due to the history and legacy it has. While it’s true that the environment and overall culture in Pakistan and UAE are relatively conservative, there are many good things to be learned from all humans and I had that opportunity living there while learning to become even more steadfast in my values and beliefs. My parents had been initially concerned when I left (as I was under-age at the time) and hadn’t really spent much time away from home. However, I lived with my Uncle, Aunt and cousin, who made my years there more wonderful then I could have ever dreamed of.
MG: Has the teaching of Purdah (the Islamic injunction for Muslim women to cover their heads and bodies publicly and behave modestly with non-related men) played a role in your life?
SA: My Purdah has never been a barrier in anything, on the contrary, it has been an endless blessing. Muslim women, whilst staying in purdah, have achieved so many things in history and we continue to see that today in every field, whether it be medicine, aviation, teaching. The problem some people might feel in maintaining purdah has never been purdah itself hindering anything, but rather our understanding of it. Such as the inferiority complex that some feel and thoughts of perhaps not being modern enough but that is far from the truth. I believe once you truly understand the reason behind why we observe it, for the Pleasure of Allah, it becomes a source of comfort, dignity and confidence, thus being very easy to observe. It is a part of my identity as an Ahmadi Muslim and I take great strength from it.
MG: Has being an Ahmadi Muslim woman hindered you in any way in terms of your education and career aspirations?
SA: Never. Being a proud Ahmadi Muslim, I have never for a second doubted that my religion was stopping me from achieving my goals. In fact, it is the source of the Divine Blessings and prayers that have been the reason behind my journey so far and in the future.
MG: With your busy schedule how have you managed to fulfil your religious duties?
SA: My experience has taught me that if you fulfill your religious obligations first and foremost, everything else simply falls in line without any problem and that is the way to success in both deen (faith) and duniya (worldly terms). No human can ever be busy enough to actually use all the hours God gives us in a day and if anyone believes otherwise then they are not holding account for the time that they waste. If one has their priorities straight then there is never any problem.
MG: As Ahmadi Muslims, we feel His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), is our Spiritual Head and Guide. How much has His Holiness (aba) been influential in your life?
SA: An Ahmadi child should be proud of having His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) as our Spiritual Head. Especially as a Waqf-e-Nau child (a child dedicated to serve the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community before birth by his/her parents), I have always in my life looked up to His Holiness (aba) for guidance in all matters of life and he has always Alhamdollilah provided it. Just an example being recently, I was facing a problem regarding my education and I wrote to His Holiness (aba) for guidance, but he was on a trip so I wasn’t able to get a response. After he returned, I was allowed time for a meeting and so I went to meet His Holiness (aba). When His Holiness (aba) saw me he already had all the details of my problem and he gave me the answer I was looking for by guiding me when I myself and my family were lost as to what to do. In hindsight, it has been the best option even when we initially did not consider it as such before asking His Holiness (aba). Alhamdolillah, we are all very lucky to have His Holiness (aba) in our lives and I feel that every one of us should write to him often to take advantage of this blessing.
MG: So, what are your specific goals now Sitara?
SA: My dream ever since I can remember has been to become a scientist and serve humanity through research. I will be working towards starting my PhD soon InshAllah and will be continuing on this path as per the guidance of His Holiness (aba).
MG: Thank you Sitara for sparing your time to tell us something of your extraordinary achievements at only the outset of what I am sure will be a very blessed and beneficial life, motivated by the noblest of intentions, Insh’Allah. Is there any final message you would like to convey to the ROR readers?
SA: I would just like to request their prayers…they mean the world to me!