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Challenging Obama Was My Greatest Challenge

06/05/2016 09:29 | Updated 06 May 2016

Dare to be different. Capitalise on every opportunity on this God-given Earth. Be true to yourself and your principles, but never so narrow-minded that you forget that the essence of life is the fruit of debate.

That's what my parents have told me throughout my childhood. I had to challenge what people wanted me to be. Born with facial palsy - meaning the left side of my face was paralysed - I was repeatedly dismissed as someone to be pitied. A female in a Pakistani community, my parents were told that celebrating my birth was unnecessary. They celebrated anyway. My parents told me to harness education as use it as a tool to empower myself to the same platform as those world leaders, even when people were saying it's a bad idea to "let" me go to university.
Why were they so afraid of my achievements? Because I routinely proved that you could challenge the limiting expectations of those around you and succeed.

On Saturday 23 April 2016, I did just that. I stood up in front of President Obama, and I told him about the inequalities faced by non-binary people, and held him to account over why transgender people in the US are being discriminated against. With bated breath, I waited as the world media watched me challenge Obama on why countries like the UK don't recognise the existence of non-binary people. I can't tell you how good it felt to breathe again after this weight lifted off my shoulders, when the President told me he was proud of me and people from around the world started an international conversation on gender norms. But the bravery is in the change yet to come.

It's estimated that about a quarter of a million people in the UK are non-binary; that is, they do not identify with the socially-accepted ideas of man and woman. They employ a pluralistic approach to gender, regarding it as a spectrum, and understand that some people do not feel they have a gender at all. In addition, your gender is entirely separate from your biological sex, be that male, female, or intersex. So really, anyone could be non-binary, and they don't have to be androgynous in dress sense to be so.

People quizzed me on why I wore earrings, looked like "a girl", and spoke with a "feminine" voice. Well, there is much more to a person than their chosen appearance. In fact, that's the first step in making the world more tolerant. Don't judge someone based on how they look. Take time to talk to the person, educate yourself, and show them the same respect you would afford yourself.

When you're being criticised because you don't fit people's expectations, keep going. If you don't stand up and break out of the confines people set for you, you won't be able to do yourself justice.

Recognise that you are powerful, that you are valuable, and that you have every right to live your truth, much like those who hold you back. Sign petitions to get non-binary gender legally recognised in the UK, speak to your family, and go Google things you don't understand so we can strive towards acceptance.

So much change is needed in the fight for equality, be that recognising gender; increasing citizenship education on how to overcome socioeconomic barriers; or fighting for human rights of those who have no voice in society. It starts with you, the reader, asking yourself to challenge your assumptions and support others in fighting inequality.
In the words of Obama, "We are the change that we seek".

Maria Munir is a politics with international relations student at the University of York. They use the pronouns they/their/them, and tweet @Maria_Munir about human rights issues, such as gender recognition. Find their blog at mariamunir.com

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