Interview and Photographs by Lisa Hornak, reporting from Lahore, Pakistan, August 12, 2015.

Mahnoor’s voice whispers along like a song as she speaks about education, family, marriage, and her goal of becoming a young author in Pakistan. Though she is soft-spoken, her strength is obvious. She is determined, intelligent, and brave. She may be seventeen, but she is an old soul. While her beliefs are rooted in tradition and strong family bonds, at heart she is a dreamer guided by her faith.

Mahnoor Ashar, 17, of Lahore, Pakistan.

I have three sisters, mashallah, and I love them dearly. I have really bonded with them. Rida was my best friend before her marriage. Now she has a son and her own family, so we’re not as close as we used to be. But I know whenever I am trouble or whenever I am upset, she will always be there for me. My sisters are the best. I love them. And, obviously, I love my parents.

I love Pakistani moms. They are very possessive, but they will do anything for their children. I am so grateful to my mom. I hope that I make her happy and proud. She is very strict, but now that I am older I understand her better.

There is another person in my life I love very much, a friend I have had for ten years. I am astounded by the vastness of her heart. She has always supported me and has always been my best friend. Her name is Zara. She never criticizes me, and she always gives me confidence. In life, it is important to hold these people close to your heart. I am so thankful for her.

I belong to a middle class family. When I was in grade nine and ten, I was not in good company, to be honest. I was bullied and I lacked confidence. I was shy and fearful. But, when I joined college it gave me a platform, it gave me one more chance to explore who I am. I am glad to be in college, to have the opportunity to learn and grow. My sisters, my parents, my friends, and my education are all so important to me.

Mahnoor with her sisters Rida, 21, left, and Maimoona,13, bottom right.

I am studying psychology, philosophy, and Persian at Kinnaird College in Lahore. It is my biggest dream to attend college in the United States, Hartwick College, actually. I am applying for a scholarship. It’s a small college but it is surrounded by perfect natural beauty.

I want to become a writer. I love to communicate with people. When it comes to speaking I am not very comfortable, but I love expressing myself through my writing. I am currently working on a book called Stars and Angels. I want to publish it while I am still in my teenage years.

I don’t care if people like my book or not, or if it’s going to be a big hit. I just want to tell the story of a young girl, like me, who has fear in her heart. She cannot encounter people; she cannot talk to them confidently. The whole story revolves around uncovering and exploring this fear in her subconscious mind. Why is she so scared? It is an issue that reaches across cultures, geography, and time. It’s not about being Pakistani or Indian or Australian or American. It’s an issue young women face around the globe. The book is about how she overcomes this fear and how she learns to face the world.

It is very difficult for a girl to aspire to careers like becoming a writer in Pakistan. It will even be hard for me to get permission from my own parents to follow this dream. But, I believe that if you work hard and you are a good person, good will come to you, inshallah.

I think about marriage very often. My mother wants to marry us off at a young age. I never say anything to her about it, that I don’t want to get married yet. I don’t think my parents would understand. All I want is to finish college. There is so much time for marriage after college! But it’s all about your destiny, I suppose.

I just attended a seminar of a motivational speaker and he said something that stuck with me. He said if you want to do something great, chances are your parents won’t agree, or you won’t have enough money. You will make many excuses. But, you can overcome any hurtle and you can be the person that you want to be. There will always be challenges, but you have to face them, and inshallah, you will get where you need to be.

Mahnoor Ashar, 17, of Lahore, Pakistan.