‘I am a different person than what I was a few months ago’

Despite obstacles and opposition, Iqra Saleem Khan LL.M. ’21 has found new resilience far from home

For Iqra Saleem Khan LL.M. ’21, the journey to Harvard Law School has been filled with significant obstacles. Throughout her life, she says, many in her family have tried hard to block her educational and career goals, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she still hasn’t seen the HLS campus. But overcoming tough challenges is second nature for Khan, a resilience for which she credits her fiercest champion: her mother.

This spring, Khan, who is from Lahore, Pakistan, overcame her family’s objections in order to join 14 other LL.M.s from the class of 2021 who decided to live in Mexico City to study together and build community. It’s the first time Khan has traveled outside Pakistan or lived alone, and she is loving her independence.

From the time she was a girl, she says, her family actively opposed her educational aspirations. “They would say, ‘It doesn’t really matter, your ‘job’ is to get married, so how is this going to help you in any way?’” she recalls. But Khan’s mother, who dropped out of high school to get married, urged her to study hard so the world would open up for her. “She would say, ‘Don’t fail because if you fail once, that will be enough for the family to say this is a waste of time,’” says Khan, who became an academic star.

Not that her life has been a grind. The only daughter in her family, Khan discovered a love of performing while in an all-girls high school, became a singer, and enjoyed fashion show competitions with other teens. After learning to produce high-quality videos, she started her own YouTube channel. Last year, as her LL.M. classmates posted videos and held online parties, Khan posted an elaborately produced video of herself making lemonade out of lemons in response to a “lemonade challenge” by Stefan Martinić LL.M. ’21.

As Khan neared high school graduation, families began to visit her home to determine Khan’s suitability as a wife for their sons. “It really damages your self-esteem,” says Khan. “Some would say I’m too tall. One said my feet are weird!” she adds with a laugh. Fortunately, she says, most of her suitors’ families were displeased she didn’t yet have a college degree, which, though they didn’t expect her to use it, was nonetheless “social capital” they desired her to have. Khan’s mother persuaded fellow family members that Khan would not get a marriage proposal unless she went to college, and Khan enrolled at the Lahore campus of the University of London International Programmes.

But in the middle of her first semester, she says, her family suddenly refused to pay her tuition. Khan’s mother then sold her most valuable possession to keep her daughter in school. “She saw how hard I was working and how important this was for my future,” Khan recalls, “so my poor mother, who’d been holding onto that jewelry for years, sold it for my university fees.”

Khan graduated with a law degree in 2016 with the highest grades among all students globally — the University of London Program has campuses throughout the world — and her achievement was featured on several news programs in Pakistan, which again drew her family’s wrath. Khan then taught Islamic law and other courses at the university’s Institute of Legal Studies in Lahore, which, she says, didn’t help attract any marriage proposals. “Men were slightly intimidated,” she says, laughing again.

After being accepted into the LL.M. program and deciding to attend despite the remote nature of the this year’s program, Khan and her classmates worked to create a close-knit community through frequent and creative online events like lemonade parties. When it was clear the campus would remain closed for the spring semester, she and a group of fellow students decided to move somewhere to be near each other. They chose Mexico City because it was easier to get visas and because it is on the same time zone as Boston. Once again, Khan’s family objected to her plans, and once again, her mother made it happen. “She said, ‘I never got to see the world. My child, go experience the world, go have fun,’” Khan recalls.

“I am a different person than what I was a few months ago,” says Khan. “The other day my blender broke and I had to go out and find a store, and I don’t know the language, and I’ve been put in that spot time and again for four months now. Even something as small as talking to your landlord to negotiate the rent, I had never done that in my entire life. It has made me more resilient, more confident, more willing to take risks. If I can live here alone, I can do anything!”

This year at HLS, Khan received the Dean’s Scholar Prize in Feminist Legal Theory for a paper she wrote on the laws of polygamy in Pakistan, while being mentored by Professor Janet Halley, the Royall Professor of Law at HLS and a leading scholar on feminist legal theory. “Like so many of our students this year, Ms. Kahn took some heavy blows, directly and indirectly, from COVID-19. She exemplified their resilience, bouncing back, eager to work, amazingly fast each time,” says Halley. “And her appetite for ideas, for learning, for sharing critical thinking, for writing, for funneling all of those into legal and social change were infectious — in a good way.”

This summer, Khan will continue her work as a research fellow for Women Living Under Muslim Law on a project called “Women Claiming Public Space,” through which she is analyzing the Aurat March in Pakistan, an annual women’s rally Khan helped organize for the past two years. “The march is about gaining public space for one day a year,” she emphasizes, “and even that was met with so much opposition,” including a counter demonstration called a modesty march. The women, like Khan herself, are undeterred. “The march created this whole body of women who are so politically aware and mobilized, and they are moving forward,” Khan says.

Khan is now applying for admission to the S.J.D. program at HLS and is excited about the possibility of finally seeing the campus, which is expected to be open in the fall. Afterwards, she will return to Pakistan to develop and teach courses in feminist legal theory and to bring a critical lens to legal studies. Her long-term goal is to get into politics and become a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan.

When she finally gets to Cambridge, MA she says, “I want to see Langdell Hall, the library, because I’ve seen it in pictures, but I want to know if it’s real,” she says, “and then I want to meet Professor Halley because without her support my LL.M. experience would not have been as good as it has been.” She hopes, more than anything, that her mother can attend her HLS graduation. “I want to make her wear the gown,” says Khan, “because she did everything to make this happen.”