Maira Sarfraz exemplifies the courage Marine Credit Union (MCU) encourages in their four core values of compassion, collaboration, commitment, and courage. Maira shares her story, even though she knows it could put her at risk, but she explained, “It’s important to have a voice.”
Maira grew up in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, near the capital of Islamabad. She moved to the United States six and a half years ago, in June of 2015. She said she now feels she is an independent woman and that she is “enjoying all of it.” But unfortunately, it wasn’t always that way for Maira and many other women of Pakistan.
The culture Maira grew up in was very different from what women experience in the U.S. She explained that she married a Pakistanis man who was living in California. Her marriage was arranged by her parents.
“It’s not considered to be good,” she said of women who divorce in her traditional culture. “It’s not good to be separated or divorced. It is always the woman’s fault.”
“I was dependent on him,” she explained of her estranged husband. Eventually, a friend called an uncle, who gave Maira shelter in another state and helped her find a job.
“I used to cry and complain,” Maira said she would say to herself, “Why did this happened to me? I was a good person. I hadn’t done anything wrong.” But she now realizes that what she experienced has made her a stronger person. “I wasn’t just standing up for myself, but also for other women,” she said.
“I have a voice now,” she explained and said that leaving the abusive relationship helped her to gain a voice she never felt she had before.
Maira said, “It’s incredible” working for MCU as it’s important for her to be around people who encourage her voice. “It’s very important to be around people who believe in you,” she added. “It’s a comfortable environment, knowing that you are heard and that you matter. My voice and my opinion are welcome here.”
Although she said some things are changing, as a woman growing up in Pakistan, Maira said she was not raised to feel empowered. “I always had to ask for permission. I didn’t realize what a fan I was to eat whatever I want, wear whatever I want. I still take a deep breath and realize there is no one to tell me that. Sometimes I miss it, sometimes not so much.”
Maira said that at one point in her life she started thinking that she didn’t have a life of her own and that she wasn’t able to speak her mind. “When women are harassed and sexually abused in Pakistan, it is always the woman’s fault.” But now she understands that these things happen not because of anything the women do. “It’s not something you did wrong,” she said.
She explained that she learned to speak up after leaving her arranged marriage. She said she learned so much from going through that experience. Yet she still has hurdles. She explained that she does now speak with her immediate family in Pakistan, but, “many of my relatives think I was wrong, that it was my fault.” And even with her immediate family, Maira said, “My thinking doesn’t align with my parents. Sometimes I stay quiet because of the cultural differences. They clash. It could take another 20 to 50 years to convince them.” She said there are a lot of people still struggling.
“I know my voice can help to inspire others,” she added, “even if I can only help one other person. The company I work for encourages that.”
Maira was approached last year, by an MCU colleague who knew her story and asked Maira to share her story at the American Association of University Women – La Crosse International Women’s Day Celebration.
She said that even though sharing her story could put her at risk, she wants other women to know that resources are available to them and that they can get out of unhealthy and dangerous situations. She is passionate about human rights and women’s rights and said she is glad to see that some progress is being made, but also that more needs to be done.
Maira said awareness is an important step and that there needs to be more education for men as well.
Maira said that living in the U.S., she is now at a comfort level where she is not scared to speak her mind … “maybe not as comfortable in Pakistan,” she admitted.
She explained that after leaving the abusive relationship, she was sent back to Pakistan, yet was not accepted there. It was after that Maira started to learn more about domestic violence and realized that what happened to her, and many other women, was “really wrong.” “I learned how much of a problem this was. This incident,” she added, “was a turning point for me personally.”
“Everyone has a voice. You just have to find it,” Maira said, but it wasn’t an easy journey for her. She was led to believe not only that the abuse was her fault, but that if she spoke about it she would be persecuted by law enforcement here in the U.S., as well as could be sent back to Pakistan. “I didn’t want to go back because they were not accepting me.”
Maira shared she didn’t say anything for a long time but eventually she started “speaking up.” “I was not the one. If he was hitting me, how was that my fault?” she added. “I am now open. I am not holding anything back. It was not my fault.”
Maira is a senior consumer loan officer for MCU. “MCU helps members who have struggles,” she shared. She said they come to MCU when they are turned down by other financial institutions. “Life happens,” she said. “You have to start somewhere.”
Maira said she is happy to play a “small part in helping others to turn their lives around. It gives me joy and makes me feel I am doing something good every day.” Maira said he is doing good in her personal life now. She has a significant other who treats her “nicely” and supports her passion to help others. “He is respectful of me,” she added. “It’s a total 180-degree difference to where I am at now. I am really happy and excited to find out what life has in store for me in the future.”