Harvard Law School

Application Essays – NIMRA AZMI

What Worked for them can Help You Get into the Law School of Your Choice 

The sky was still dark – but it was almost dawn. I tightened my sweat – sticky headscarf. Watching the men circumambulating the sacred black stone of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, I could not help but envy their ehrams, white towels that draped around their waists like airy togas.\

I had come to Saudi Arabia with my family to perform the Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage that can be best described as an abbreviated version of the obligatory Hajj. Pilgrimage, whether it be Hajj or Umrah, is meant to be a great equalizer. Men dress in identical ehrams and women garb themselves plainly. Race or class do not matter. Men and women are not supposed to be segregated. We are all equal in our worship of Allah.

Men and women sat in patches, hugging the black and glided Kaaba, waiting for the call to the Fajr prayer on my final day in Mecca. Legs folded beneath me, I watched the Saudi shurta –civil police officers – divide the women and the men. “Very well then,” I thought equably. “Separate but equal.” As I looked on, groups of women worshippers were being pushed back from the Kaaba by the shurta. Initially, I assumed the officers were creating space for more worshippers, men and women alike. I quickly realized that women were being forced back to make room for more men, as if the prayer of men took precedence over the prayer of women, as if they deserved to pray closer to the Kaaba by virtue of their gender. There is no Islamic injunction, legal or otherwise, that states women must yield their places before the Kaaba to men. No, it was merely man – made tradition that perpetuated this prejudice. I was incensed. All semblance of spiritual calm was evaporated.

A shurta approached where I sat with my mother and a dozen other unknown women. “Move,” he said in Arabic. I pretended not to understand. “Move,” he tried again in English. “Je ne comprends pas,” I answered. Turning away, he tried to bully the other women into leaving. A few departed. More stayed. He returned, but I ignored him, staring blandly at the soaring marble minarets above. Angrily, the shurta shoved me.

In worried Urdu, my mother said, “We should leave. They could put you in jail.”

I looked at the surrounding space, once almost evenly distributed between men and women, but now overtaken by men at the behest of the Saudi officers. I would not be bullied into surrendering my religious rights, I decided — especially not when my intention was shared by the ten or so women around me. I shook my head. “You can go, but I’m going to pray here.”

An old woman, her brown face lined by the sun, turned to me. “It is almost Fajr; they cannot make you move once the imam calls for prayer. Sit and wait.” She gripped my hand, the papery – soft pads of her fingers digging into my palm. I cannot remember how we communicated. She did not speak English and I only knew the most rudimentary classical Arabic. But her meaning was clear: Resist patiently. Dawn will come and they cannot stop us then.

She was right. Despite the attempts of the shurta, as the sun rose and the call to prayer wove throughout the air, we prayed side by side, two women disparate in age, language, and nationality, but who had prevailed over one small injustice together.

This happened six months before the Arab Spring burst forth in Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, at the holiest place in Islam, through that woman, I saw a kernel of that spirit and took heart from it. That same spirit drives me to pursue a legal education to advocate for a feminist reinterpretation of Islamic law. Women around the world may have had their rights usurped by men operating under the veil of religion, but many of these women are neither unaware nor nonresistant. It is the kind of quiet strength displayed by that woman in Saudi Arabia that I wish to work with following law school as a proponent for women’s rights in the Muslim world.

A good story makes can make for a great personal statement, and Nimra Azmi’s essay hits the mark. Narrative structure keeps the pages turning and can effectively convey personal strengths. Writing your own essay, it’s important to think hard about the story you want to tell. What does it show about you as a law school candidate? Azmi’s essay not only demonstrates her superb writing skills, it also illustrates her dedication, values, and passion for a specific branch of law—women’s rights in the Muslim world.

Azmi uses sensory description and action verbs to immediately immerse readers in the world of her essay. She makes sure to define words and concepts that may be unfamiliar to an admissions officer. Writing about religion can sometimes be tricky, but Azmi sidesteps any potential offense by straightforwardly describing the pilgrimage and Muslim beliefs.

Suspense builds as Azmi describes how the police officer hassled her – an anecdote that maintains reader interest and shows Azmi’s commitment to her goals. The moment when the old woman takes Azmi’s hand is a nice touch, beautifully written and shows that Azmi understands the values of patience and silence. Again, detailed and clear writing help Azmi take a single, foundational incident from her life and extrapolate its relevance to her future law career.

Throughout her essay, Azmi draws the reader in with her well-flowing account. But it isn’t just a well-flowing account. It isn’t just a good story. More than that, it shows what kind of person Azmi is – a person who is resilient, brave and intelligent. And it shows them without bragging. Instead, the reader finds oneself rooting for Azmi. And by taking time to reflect on the anecdote at the essay’s close, Azmi adds a layer of thoughtfulness onto the qualities alresdy displayed. Put all of that together, and you have a strong law school candidate, and one with a clear, forward-looking focus. Her compelling story illustrates strong motivations and impressive passion for a law career in global women’s rights.

–Julia F. P. Ostmann

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