Her name means ‘unique beautiful leader’ in Urdu and Arabic, “but I was more like a ‘confused stuck follower’ for the greater portion of my life,” says Shazia Imam in jest. And yet, today, with her confident demeanour, compassionate gaze, and courage in speaking out, she has transformed her life and personality, and lived up to her name.
Born to Indian-origin parents in Washington DC, Shazia was brought up with traditional values that she says are not only representative of Indian Muslims but also “any girl, anywhere”. “There’s all of this idea around what perfection is,” she says, admitting that she herself subscribed to it for most of her youth.
As a child, she pushed herself to excel in mathematics and science, but only because her aspirations towards more creative fields were constantly thwarted.
“I was interested in acting but I had a school teacher who, for years, refused to cast me in a speaking role. It was a predominantly white school, and the main cast was always full of blonde hair, blue-eyed white kids. The non-white kids were always in the chorus,” she says, recalling a slight that left a deep impact on her in elementary school.
In a kind of pushback, she immersed herself in academics, scoring high grades and finally graduating with a degree in industrial and systems engineering from Virginia Tech.
The desire to “be perfect” once again directed her towards a “successful” job at Accenture, one of the largest consulting companies in the world, and to go through with a traditional Muslim wedding at the age of 23. “We went through the rishtaa process from community members. He was Pakistani-American (so, desi and same culture),” she says.
Married to a “great guy”, Shazia settled into the “perfect suburban life with a perfect house in a perfect zip code”, looking forward to raising a family. Five years after her wedding, she got pregnant.
“Everything was going perfectly to plan,” she said. “I had that white picket fence story signed, sealed and delivered… except that’s all it was, a story,” she writes on her website TheLifeEngineer.com.
She went into labour earlier than expected, but her son – whom she named Chotusonu (“little love”) – survived only a few hours. “While I got to hold him in my arms – and he was so perfect, he was so little, with his little nose, oh, he was so perfect – he wasn’t meant to be with us in this world,” she says in a bare-all podcast, her voice quivering slightly.
Losing her baby left Shazia broken in more ways than one. Her marriage began to fall apart. “I tried to hold it all together for a while, presenting this picture to the world that everything was fine. But then, the divorce came through, and I was suddenly all alone.”
It was hard enough to lose her son but it was even harder to think her husband was leaving her, admits Shazia. “There were times I felt like my life was going to end, and I even wished it would end – because who would I be without these things? Who was I?”
And yet, being a person with deep faith, Shazia soon understood that “when God closes one door, He opens another window”. “Whatever happens is for the best,” she affirms.
“Even when your heart is breaking, and you’re crying alone in your bed late at night, and no one knows what’s going on with you, God knows. And God knew what was meant for me.”
The journey of self-discovery that began at the end of her son’s life culminated in an unexpected rush of relief the day her husband of 10 years left their house for the final time. “I suddenly felt free to be me,” says Shazia.
She realised that for all those years she’d tried so hard to be “perfect”, she hadn’t even known who she was at all. She made a “dreams list” and began doing things she’d never done before – taking swimming lessons, travelling, meeting new people from different paths.
The more Shazia explored the world, the more she discovered herself. After a year of her divorce, she met a wonderful man. They married a few months later, and Shazia moved to Texas.
The process to self-realisation took a while, “and the story continues,” she says, but what helped was following her heart – and helping others. She became a life coach, and helps other women transform so they feel worthy, see their own gifts, and live their purpose.
The 38-year-old does admit she feels deep sadness at times but has learnt to see her life in perspective and to count her blessings: “I feel great about myself now; my heart feels at peace.” She believes she is now living the life that’s best for her, even if she had to follow a path that’s far from society’s definition of “perfect”.
Shazia also runs a blog and podcast, ‘Feminine and Fulfilled’, where she interviews inspiring women from all over America.
“There’s an imbalance of masculine energy in the world and we can see how that’s playing out. We need our divine feminine energy to rise. We need women’s voices to be heard. These are the things that are going to bring the world back to balance. It’s positive for both men and women,” she avers.
The biggest lessons Shazia has learnt are in acceptance, being present in the moment, and keeping hope alive. “Your voice matters and you matter,” she says. “Share your light even if it’s with just one person. The collective light will illuminate the world.”