This semester, I traded in my aforementioned chronically open Google Docs tab for a chronically open Spyder file. Lo and behold, in my attempts to become a Renaissance woman, I took a coding class! As my senior year capstone!
After a long day of asking whichever unlucky person who happened to mention knowing Python for help ending with my roommate Grace, she mentioned one of the most thought-provoking guest lectures she had ever attended in her SI 430 class, given by Prof. Mustafa Naseem. Within five minutes of her summarizing his lecture, I found a new role model, undeniably furthered by the coincidental fact that Naseem is Pakistani like I am. The first time I recognized I wanted to pursue a purposeful career was when I visited Pakistan: Seeing the disparity in living conditions between my relatives and the children we passed in clothing markets and hearing about a brother and sister picking up a half-eaten mango off the street to eat have permanently altered my perception of what my priorities in life should be. Learning of the creative approaches Naseem took to tangibly dismantle patriarchal standards in Pakistan expanded the realm of possibility to me in terms of how to use tricks of the trade for societal progress. Thus, coincidentally on the last day of International Women’s Month, I planned out my final article for Michigan in Color. As a section with the mission of utilizing narrative to facilitate social change, introducing the work and experience of Naseem to our readership will hopefully expand the spectrum of how readers can work towards propelling social progress in their own pursuits.
Even within our initial email interactions to set up an interview time, it became clear that Naseem is a natural facilitator. He was eager to read my previously written articles, connect me to social impact opportunities and further discuss possible opportunities after our interview. During our Zoom conversation, every so often he’d pause to check on Milo, his sister’s dog who he was babysitting at the moment. Milo clearly had a thriving social life; Naseem once even paused to set up his playdate with a friend’s dog later in the day. It became immediately clear to me that family is an integral part of Naseem’s life, not just as an overarching concept but as a day-to-day engagement. In asking him about his driving force to work in the intersection of social impact and technology, he instantly cited his father as his primary inspiration, pointing to a photo of him on Naseem’s desk. As a family physician running his own private practice, Naseem’s father cross-subsidized medical costs, offsetting the price difference of affordable medicines offered to lower-income Pakistanis by selling at higher costs to insurance companies.
“Before the words social impact and social entrepreneurship were coined, he didn’t charge for prescriptions” Naseem said. “It’s good when you’re able to contribute on the side with volunteering, but I think I’d want to be able to do this 40 hours a week and get paid for it. And that inspiration comes from my dad.”
Currently, most of Naseem’s work is based in Pakistan and is largely intervention-based, providing strategies to mitigate and address pressing issues.
“When I’m trying to cause behavior change, I want to do it in a place where I feel like I understand the landscape (…) and with communities where I have a perspective,” Naseem said.
It all started with his involvement in vaccination efforts to eradicate polio, a disease that Pakistan was working to eliminate for good. Ultimately, a large reason that Pakistan’s polio eradication campaign faltered into failure was vaccine hesitancy. Naseem had noticed trends of this phenomenon while working at a vaccine delivery service.
“I quickly came to realize men had a big say in child health. If a mother was declining vaccination, oftentimes it was like ‘iske abbu ijaazat nahi de te,’ or his father is not okay with this,” Naseem said. “So we need to start influencing the man.”
Alongside one of his colleagues, Sacha Ahmad, their team came up with SuperAbbu, meaning Superdad. SuperAbbu serves as a health hotline for current and prospective fathers to ask accredited doctors questions about maternal and child health and share their own stories. “The idea was to get men more involved in pregnancy and childcare,” Naseem said.
Initially, naysayers thought that this service would be unutilized — no man in Pakistan would see the need. However, Naseem’s team came to realize a wholly different reality: Since fathers weren’t allowed in the gynae wards, they usually waited outside as their wives got checkups.
“Men were interested, but they just didn’t have access,” Naseem said.
After launching SuperAbbu, the service was inundated: 30,000 total calls from 20,000 users, asking questions ranging from preliminary information about pregnancy itself to how they could best help their wives throughout the process. Evidently, while access to information had been stifled, demand had been pent up.
“Part of my work is influencing men to be better partners, better parents, and better fathers,” Naseem said. “The other part, as I quickly realized, (relates to) social determinants of health. Seventy percent of our well-being is determined not by our genetic makeup or by the quality of care we have access to, but the environment that we are in.”
So Naseem came to understand that, in addition to expanding access to quality care, he needed to address social determinants of health.
According to the World Health Organization, social determinants of health include the conditions where people “are born, grow, work, live and age,” as well as the broader forces and systems at play in one’s everyday lives, including political, economic and social policies, norms and systems. Interestingly, recent research has shown that these social determinants may be even more important than quality healthcare or good lifestyle choices. As an example, Naseem outlined potential negative effects of racism in one’s daily life.
“If you’re at work dealing with microaggressions, it increases your stress levels, which increase cortisol levels, which leads to heart attacks,” Naseem said. “Similarly, if you’re a woman living in a patriarchal country and there are limits to your freedom of movement or if you’re in an abusive relationship, it impacts your health.”
Particular to certain communities in Pakistan, the latter condition is unfortunately not so uncommon. As a diaspora-hyphenated-Common-App essay Pakistani American, I’ve always hesitated to characterize my family’s homeland as a country with the stereotypes it’s often associated with, but I assume and hope that the readers of this article are nuanced thinkers who don’t jump to hasty generalizations. Associating Pakistan with patriarchal standards isn’t meant to be normative or in favor of Western cultural superiority, but simply descriptive in terms of the lived experiences of many women who’ve had encounters within that realm. As readers and writers with hyphenated identities that are split between the East and West, it’s a tough line to tether: How much do we portray incessantly positively in a way that doesn’t delve into posing as progressive liberal “we’re just like you” Westernized mini-societies, or how much do we critique without disparaging in the “America please save us, Homeland is actually accurate” genre? Honest cultural assessments can only occur if we step out of the zero-sum mindset of Western centrality. A critique of Pakistan does not mean an extra point for the United States, and vice versa. As a topic that my nerdy all-coincidentally-did-Model-UN-and-are-now-prelaw friends get into frequently, our conclusion is “let things be shitty … in a vacuum!”
Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that women in Pakistan are living under patriarchal standards. In the age of globalization and technology, these same women have found creative approaches to create community in navigating these difficulties. Where does a lot of this support reside? Facebook. Alongside his colleague Dr. Maryam Mustafa from Lahore University of Management Science in Lahore, Naseem set out to learn more about what he dubs “digital safe spaces.” I had actually heard of the general concept before through my mother, as she’s part of a few of the Facebook groups for Pakistani women herself. Essentially, they’re created by women, for women. Members can post anonymously or with their information, and all content is vetted by an overall moderator, who posts anonymous content messaged to them.
According to Naseem, there are three things that happen within these spaces. To start off, users are able to get the weight of their experiences off their chest — when their stories are out in the world, it’s no longer their burden to carry.
“The second thing that happens is you’ll start to see a lot of comments pouring in, and you realize you’re not alone,” he said. These spaces are filled with women who’ve gone through similar situations, so the collective support is tremendously significant.
“And then the third thing that happens is you’re able to collectively brainstorm strategies or provide material support,” Naseem said. “We’ve heard things like this for abusive marriages: This woman wanted to get out of her marriage and leave her partner, but she was scared for her children’s wellbeing and didn’t have material resources. So somebody said, ‘Be ready at 11 p.m. at this intersection with your kids, I’m going to pick you up from there and take you to a halfway home.’ ”
In that specific instance, the community also conducted fundraisers for this woman to provide her with financial support to begin her new life.
“A lot of times, when you think of who’s an entrepreneur, you think of tech bros in the Bay Area, largely men,” Naseem said. “All of these women are creating infrastructures on the internet that didn’t exist … circumventing all technologies that don’t serve them and creating infrastructures on the internet that do serve them. To me, they’re entrepreneurial. To me, they’re founders.”
Like attracts like, and as Naseem says, “Once you start to create a supportive community, it attracts other supportive people.” He noticed this with the men using SuperAbbu: Once a supportive community was established, it became a virtuous cycle of sorts as users uplifted each other in their self-improvement journeys.
“This then normalizes behaviors,” Naseem said. “There’s tens of thousands of men sharing stories, (conveying) ‘Okay, I’m not alone.’ ”
As a graduating senior, listening to the innovative insights of Naseem had me preemptively adding “look up how to take another semester” in my to-do list. The combination of passion for his work and sheer intelligence was so evident, and I can’t help but think we’re blessed as a university to have his presence. As a professor, he has an important goal for his students.
“We have this mantra at Michigan, leaders and best. I think that’s inspirational and important,” Naseem said. “But it also then starts to paint a picture of brilliance here, not elsewhere. I want to teach my students that when you go work in these communities, just because the person you’re working with is non-literate or doesn’t know how to read or write, doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent. Just because they happen to be low-income doesn’t mean they can’t solve their own problems or come up with interesting ideas.”
Diminishing the maize and blue superiority complex isn’t easy, and it may not even be necessary. (To echo the intuition of a certain Victoria Justice, I think we can all be intelligent.) The embedded goal of Naseem’s upcoming course is to signify just that. Being offered in the spring, this course is called Humanitarian Innovation: Co-Design for Social Impact. Within the class, U-M master’s students codesign resettlement processes with Afghan refugees who will accordingly receive three credits from Washtenaw Community College.
“They’re your co-fellows sitting next to you in class,” Naseem said. “Not people you need to go to and source information from, but as equal members of the team who are going to get a grade as well. … You treat them as equals, you don’t treat them as information sources.”
A persistent and relevant critique of philanthropy and social impact work is that marginalized communities are otherized, being asked carefully curated questions for a few minutes and leaving the problem-solving to the Big Boys. There’s a sort of paternalism and savior complex with these well-intentioned efforts, and to top it all off, navigating complex cultural hurdles in looking to help facilitate progress in marginalized communities is not one-size-fits-all. According to Naseem, these hurdles can at least be partially navigated through the concept of buy-in, an example of which is the new reflective journaling app for men that he’s working on with students at LUMS. The distinguishing factor of this app is that its prompts would borrow from Islamic concepts, namely muraqabah and muhasabah, the former methodology encouraging self-reflection on one’s closeness with God, and the latter methodology promoting reflections on how to work on one’s shortcomings to align with their religious morals. It’s no surprise that reflection and community are two of the major modes of facilitating behavior change, and Naseem’s work operates within the modality of cultural contexts, providing a transitory ease of sorts for individuals who utilize these innovations. There’s a sense of intimidation with something Other, and many of the benefactors of his technologies are everyday Pakistanis who quite simply would utilize a platform more if it related to their closely held values. The term “cultural competency” doesn’t do Naseem’s innovations justice, and I think their brilliance lies in their nuance: No behavior-changing solution is one-size-fits-all, but complicated problems don’t negate their worthiness of being addressed.
Undeniably, it is difficult to even get the opportunity to address them. Speaking for myself as a student trying to work in the realm of social impact, pathways are sparse.
“Every student I end up working with wants to be able to do more of these things,” Naseem said. “It’s up to us to shape a society that encourages this kind of behavior because the demand is there.”
I will testify myself that Naseem is the change he wants to see, as he spent a good portion of our conversation before and after the delineated interview portion referring me to so many resources and opportunities to look into. (Thank you so so much!)
Ultimately, one could probably write a Harry Potter sized book on everything there is to learn from Prof. Naseem. As my loyal reader who made it this far, the rumors are not true: TikTok clearly didn’t impact your attention span thatttt much. Proud. To wrap up, I’ll leave us all with a descriptive and normative truth from Naseem:
“I do think people want to do the right thing at their core” he said. “I think we need to align the incentives.”
A tall order for our current society? Maybe. Realistically though, I think deep down we all know that a lot in our current world does not make sense, and many structures and systems are quite literally unsustainable. As a collective, humans are really great at ignoring things, but let’s be honest, that seven trillionth forest fire in California is not normal.
To me, it’s inevitable that some of the best brains of our generation will have to work to solve society’s most pressing issues, and in a perfect world it would be easy to want to. Maybe the incentives don’t align everywhere in the world, but here in Ann Arbor, we’re blessed to be able to seek out opportunities to get involved and utilize our strengths for a common goal, and I hope that this article facilitates further involvement in Naseem’s important work and groundbreaking courses.
As a parting senior, a hill I’m willing to die on is that work you care about always excels. Clearly, here I am, four days before graduation and a semester after leaving The Michigan Daily finding my way back to writing about topics I care about. It’s undeniably important to integrate that intrinsic, passion-driven work with expanding your skillset (translation: my Python homework wasn’t that bad), but with inspiration from individuals like Naseem, maybe we can see more feasibility in a combination. Personally, I ended the Zoom conversation staring at my reflection in my perpetually-fingerprint-stained laptop screen, thinking “what are the odds?” The coincidence of hearing from a fellow Pakistani who did research in the university one of my cousins teaches at and another cousin attends, all spurred by a daily debrief with my roommate, seemed less like a coincidence and more like life’s little nod to maintain these tightly-held dreams.
Message received! The pursuit of this tall order persists.
MiC contributor Eliya Imtiaz can be contacted at email@example.com