When I was seven years old, I got down on my knees and prayed to God to make me into a boy.
Growing up in a conservative Albanian community in New York City, my teenage years were not typical by any means. Like many Eastern European cultures, I grew up in a circle heavily influenced by Old World traditions, in which women are expected to hold their tongues and dutifully mind their husbands.
Reconciling the gender norms of my culture with modern and individualistic American ideals had always been a struggle. For me, the struggle culminated at the age of 17 when I was entered into an arranged marriage with a man 10 years my senior. Although it wasn’t an arranged marriage in the traditional sense, there was overwhelming pressure from my family, friends, and the Albanian community to comply. Refusing my chosen suitor simply wasn’t an option, so I obediently walked down the aisle. I remember trying to console myself by viewing my nuptials as a ticket to a new and exciting life. However, I knew little about what I was really getting myself into at the age of 17.
While many Albanian women and women from other cultures have found love and respect through an arranged marriage, this was not the case for me. My identity as a woman was only reflective of whom I was married to and not as an individual. Feeling stunted by a culture of historically oppressed women, I desperately grasped at any opportunity to distract myself from my marriage and what my life had become. Surprisingly, my husband allowed me to enroll in a university and even pursue law school. I tried to keep myself busy with lectures and school work. Still, no amount of education filled the void I felt, propelling me into deep depression and a bout with anorexia.
It took a long time, nine years, to be exact, but I finally found the strength to stand on my own. After many voiceless years of letting others dictate my life, I finally was able to look beyond to what I wanted my life to be and leave my husband to begin a fresh start. That was the beginning of my life. It was the scariest, yet most liberating decision I have ever made. Through support from friends, therapy, self-talk and a sincere belief that this was not my life’s purpose, I built the strength to leave my marriage, leave the only community I had known and my family.
Creating a new life for myself was the most empowering task I have ever accomplished. The respect I gained for myself was insurmountable. However, my new life was also very lonely. My family did not agree with my decision which left me feeling isolated and distant from them during atime when I needed their support the most.
Despite knowing that I made the right decision, I kept wondering to myself: Why does this process have to be so difficult? Why does starting a new chapter have to be so isolating and overwhelming?
In answering these questions, I found my calling. I knew there was a need for a support network for other women with similar pressures, low self-esteem and uncertainty. I began a small group, Women Empowered, which began as an informal gathering of like-minded women bonding over light-hearted activities. Together, we found comfort in supporting one another through rough times, no matter what the cause.
I had no idea this small network of women had so much potential. Slowly, we grew into a larger network through grassroots social media efforts and expanded our activities to include volunteerism and mentorship to help younger girls through the difficult years in their own lives. My experience has taught me that no matter your situation, perseverance can pay off. Having amazing mentors and a strong support group along the way is necessary.
My new goal is to inspire women to reach their full potential and, through Women Empowered,I have been able to create a network of women all working to enhance their own lives, the lives of the other women in the network and the lives of the at-risk girls we mentor. This incredible group of women, motivated by a vision to make a difference, has ultimately become my safe harbor from the storm.
These days, I no longer pray to God to make me someone that I am not, for I am a woman, empowered.
Shelly Ulaj is the Founder and CEO of Women Empowered.