To be born a female in Pakistan is to already have the odds stacked against you.
The statistics released by UNESCO paint a picture that is not only bleak, but frightening. Honour killings, workplace harassment, acid attacks, sexual abuse and illiteracy are so rife that one becomes desensitised. 90 million women, with only 40% of them claiming to be literate…
I grew up hearing warped versions of the Quran in which men were made out to be demi-gods, divorce was for the weak and faithless, and a woman’s place was well and truly entrenched in the domestic arena, and I remember thinking, you’ve got it wrong.
I grew up watching young women emulate progressive feminists who blamed religion for the heinous crimes against women, and I remember thinking, you’ve got it wrong, too.
To understand the gender roles that pervade Pakistani society, one must look past religion and cross-examine the culture which is disproportionately skewed in favour of men. I grew up in a privileged family, but knew as soon as I became sentient, that my parents were going against the grain by educating my sister and I in a private school. I recall the daily circus of arguments around finances and how much money my parents would save if only they sent their daughters to a public institution – after all, my sister and I wouldn’t return any profit on investment.
You see, the dowry system is rampant as a remnant of our Indian heritage. A girl is raised to be married, but upon marriage has to bring with her a substantial dowry (this could include a car, appliances, furniture, money, clothing for the groom’s family, and/or plain cash). It is not uncommon to hear of families who have gone bankrupt trying to fund their daughter’s wedding and dowry, and it is not uncommon to hear of women who have been subject to family violence immediately after marriage, because they didn’t bring with them a large enough dowry. In a society that claims to be religious, religion is shoved to the side when it comes to the sheer spectacle of the wedding and dowry circus.
Women, whether privileged and educated or not, are rarely given a choice when it comes to being able to resume their careers after marriage. This has to be firmly negotiated prior to the wedding, but can still lead to the groom backing out and insisting on his partner being a “housewife”. Yes, the divorce rate is low, but I grew up watching couples in loveless marriages built on the foundation of broken promises and resentment. It is no wonder then that I to this day find the idea of a wedding terrifying – too often I have seen the tragedy that follows a wedding which may have involved tremendous expenditure and effort.
I knew a lot of women in high school who were biding their time – working hard, losing sleep and applying for that elusive scholarship to a prestigious university overseas. This did not just mean a good education and better career prospects. It was their ticket out of a family and country which had let them down, a ticket out of the constant barrage of questions around marriage and children and when they were planning to “settle down” and do their duty. Today in Australia, migrants are labelled as sneaky, money-hungry people who are here “to take our jobs”, but this is not the case for many Pakistani women who have moved here to live quiet, unobtrusive lives without being considered a burden on society.
There are a number of women who will dispute all of the above, but they are not representative of the majority of women in Pakistan. Financial freedom and education are luxuries afforded to a select few, and they are usually more than happy to keep the status quo as it is. For these woman, life is a combination of sojourning overseas, and then returning to Pakistan to fulfil their yearly quota of “ethnic” shopping and gossip. It is common to hear of Australian-Pakistanis who are returning home just in time for the wedding season, where they look forward to mingling with their particular social strata and be feted in the best restaurants and boutiques the country has to offer. These women tend to confuse privilege with social equality, but the two are completely different.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. Pakistan is a conundrum, because where stories of the subjugation or women abound, there are now stories full of the resurgence of the entrepreneurial women who have turned dust into gold. A powerful campaign called #BeatMe by the United Nations Women’s chapter features Pakistani women who challenge men to do better than them. In a compelling paradox, the campaign showcases a woman inviting a man to beat her – but at things she is good at. The campaign aims to inspire women to reaffirm that they are stronger than what they are made to believe, and aims to shatter the perception that a woman is weak and dependent.
I used to believe that my gender was a handicap to be borne patiently. I now see it as a strength. Growing up a woman in Pakistan is a baptism of fire, and has equipped me with the resilience and strength that I now know cannot be taken for granted. It has made me appreciate the power of sisterhood, and it makes me proud of my femininity as opposed to seeing it as a source of eternal weakness and shame. Such is the paradox of gender.
Cover image by By Rangbaz (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons