Update: Inshah Bhatti was the third runner-up in Sunday’s 2019 Miss Pakistan USA Pageant. Ramsha Khan earned the title of Miss Pakistan USA 2019. Congrats, Inshah!
Customers of East Coast Wings + Grill in Harrisburg tend to take notice whenever Inshah Bhatti is tending bar.
If her dark hair, luminescent smile, and slight Pakistani accent fail to catch their attention, her outgoing personality and friendly demeanor inevitably reels them in.
As a result, Ms. Bhatti’s regulars most likely know some details about her personal life, such as the fact that she was born in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan, immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 5, has three younger siblings – all of whom were born in the United States – and is a 2015 graduate of Central Cabarrus High School.
Some might even know that she’s now pursuing her paralegal studies at nearby Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, recently completed an internship at a criminal and immigration law firm in Charlotte, and plans on eventually majoring in criminal justice at a four-year college or university so she can one day serve as an immigration attorney.
But only a select few know that Ms. Bhatti, who will turn 22 later this summer, spent nearly seven years in an abusive marriage – one arranged without her consent or knowledge by her mother, whom Ms. Bhatti has since forgiven – prior to the recent finalization of her divorce.
“I think, in a way, my mom held me to a different standard because I was born back home, and she wanted me to keep in touch with that culture,” Ms. Bhatti said. “She has since apologized, and said that she regrets her decision.”
She later added: “I have since forgiven everybody involved in the situation because I cannot hold grudges, because then it serves as negativity in my life.
In addition to escaping from an unwanted and abusive relationship, her newfound independence has empowered her to serve as a vocal advocate for not only oppressed Pakistani women trapped in similar situations, but as a role model for all women.
It has also given the freedom to pursue another longtime and previously out-of-reach dream – one that, if she’s ultimately successful, will provide her with a national platform from which to share and spread her message: Entering the Miss Pakistan USA Pageant.
Out Of Reach … Until Now
Though she no longer considered herself married, pageant competition rules stipulate that all Miss Pakistan USA contestants must be single.
With that obstacle finally removed, Ms. Bhatti entered the national competition earlier this year and, following an intense round of phone interviews, essay assignments, and other assessments, learned in mid-June that she was one of only 11 finalists selected from a larger pool of contestants hailing from across the country.
She’ll will be heading to Springfield, Virginia later this week, and taking the stage on the evening of Sunday, August 4, for the 2019 pageant.
“At first it was very nerve-wracking, but I realized that it was crucial and important for me to step up and become a voice,” said Ms. Bhatti, who has never entered a pageant before. “So, ever since I realized that it has been very exciting and fun, and I’m so ready and so happy to be a part of it.”
With only six weeks to prepare, Ms. Bhatti had to accelerate her preparations, opting to teach herself belly-dancing, with the help of online tutorials, for the talent portion of the competition, as opposed to learning a traditional Pakistan dance. She’s now busy making last-minute preparations, including selecting her pageant gowns – two American and one Pakistani design – and finalizing and packing her makeup.
Her boss, East Coast Wings franchise owner J.D. Penland, and even some of her regular customers have been helping prepare her for the pageant by asking random question, allowing her to practice her responses while pouring draft beers and mixing cocktails. Ms. Bhatti particularly enjoys answering challenging questions, especially political ones or those pertaining to her native country, and is ready to share her personal experiences with pageant judges.
Still, she also stresses that her main goal is to inspire other women, especially Pakistani women, who may find themselves in similar situations.
“That has been one of my motivators to participate in this pageant,” Ms. Bhatti said. “Because I was able to overcome so much, I want to inspire other women who may be in the same or similar type of circumstance, to help them build up the courage to leave an abusive marriage or an arranged marriage.”
She is also painfully aware of how lucky she is to live in the United States, where she is allowed to speak her mind and advocate for those cannot speak up out of fear or other uncontrollable circumstances.
“I’m very fortunate that I live in a country where I have the freedom to think, talk, dress and speak the way that I want to, and I know for sure that if I was in Pakistan it would have been so much more difficult, if not impossible, to step away from a situation like this,” Ms. Bhatti said. “It would have been practically impossible.”
She also has a very strong opinion about arranged marriages, and those who still feel compelled to follow an outdated and unhealthy tradition.
“I just don’t see how you can be married to someone that you don’t love,” said Ms. Bhatti, explaining that her parents fell in love and were not an arranged marriage. “It makes me sad and it also angers me that people continue to practice arranged marriages, especially for younger girls who haven’t even reached the physical maturity to be in a marriage, or to bear children, and these girls are being married off to men that are sometimes twice their age.
“And that angers me,” she continued. “It really does, so I hope to become a voice for them.”
If she is ultimately crowned Miss Pakistan USA 2019, Ms. Bhatti also hopes to use the platform to remove some of the misunderstandings between the Pakistani and American cultures. For example, she believes that many Americans think that arranged marriages are dictated by religious beliefs as opposed to cultural ones when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Plenty Of Support
Ms. Bhatti stresses that could not have made it this far without the support of many people, and topping that list is her friend and boss at East Coast Wings. Mr. Penland originally hired Ms. Bhatti, who lives in Mooresville, as a hostess at his Kannapolis location three years ago; she moved to his Harrisburg location shortly after it opened its doors, and worked her first shift as a bartender on September 9, 2018 – opening day for the NFL, and the same day the Carolina Panthers defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 16-8.
“She’s dependable, reliable and works well with the other employees,” said Mr. Penland, who owns four of the East Coast Wings + Grill franchises. “And the customers love her.”
That’s because she is upbeat and always exudes a positive vibe, according to her boss. “That right there is about 90 percent of what you need in this business,” he added. “If I can get that, I’ll take it all day long.”
He is also thrilled that his bartender was selected as a finalist, stating that it will be a remarkable experience for her even if someone else returns home with the crown and the assorted cash prizes.
Ms. Bhatti is also being realistic, fully aware that the competition for Miss Pakistan USA 2019 will be intense, and intimidating for someone with no prior pageant experience. Still, she’s eager and excited to take the stage on Sunday evening to see if she can win over the judges, and says she will be completely content if someone else takes home the title.
“I would be so happy if any girl gets chosen, because it is so crucial to have modern-day Pakistani women step up and speak about the things that are affecting the women of Pakistan,” she said. “We need women with strong voices, strong opinions, who can speak out and say this is wrong, and this is right, and be a voice for the women that aren’t able to express their voices, or express their opinions back home. It’s so, so crucial, and I hope that they pick someone who is real, and someone who has a passion from deep in their heart to take part in this pageant.
“It’s not just about a girl who looks good on stage, or looks pretty … ” Ms. Bhatti added. “Although that’s fun, it’s one small part of it.”
Those interested in supporting Ms. Bhatti’s journey to the Miss Pakistan USA Pageant can make a donation here: www.gofundme.com/f/help-inshah-in-the-miss-pakistan-usa.