Why droves of Pakistani women are leaving their misogynistic country
When I started my first job, a cousin told me,
“All the noble reasons a woman might have for earning her own living don’t matter. Once you start spending time outside the boundary of your house, you are an outside woman.”
I never understood exactly what he meant by “an outside woman”, and by the time I’d grasped what he said, the moment had passed. I believed what he meant was that I was not as respectable as a housewife or someone who does housework and nothing else. An outside woman – a woman thought of like a house cat that becomes a stray.
Eleven years later, I find myself as one of the thousands of women who are derided for wanting something more than the life of a housewife or mother. So in order to pursue the kind of lives we want, we must literally become outsiders.
One such “outside woman” is my friend Yasmeen who had expatriated to Dubai. Not having seen her for a year, I expected more outward signs of opulence in her apartment. But as I explored her kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, I noticed that most of the cabinets were empty. The inventory of utensils and groceries made it obvious that the occupant wasn’t much into cooking and did not entertain many guests.
I was served tea in her living room. Again, only a handful of the belongings there were hers – the TV, some souvenirs and a picture of her niece. All the furniture belonged to the landlord. In the far corner of the room was a prayer mat and the Holy Quran, placed in the direction of the Qibla. Yasmeen was telling me about how she got her driver’s license and how she enjoyed her new Volkswagen. Back home, she was a Kia girl.
I realised it would soon be my turn to speak. She asked me about life back home in Karachi.
“Unfortunately, almost nothing has changed,” I said.
“Hina,” she said without missing a beat, “Why do you think I’m living here?”
I should note that Yasmeen is one of the smartest women I know. Four years ago, she had a thriving career in Karachi, yet she decided to move to Dubai. At the time, I thought it was just a career decision. But sitting in her apartment I realised it was more than that. In that one-bedroom apartment, her no-nonsense, minimalist personality was reflected in everything I’d seen. It wasn’t just her career; she was the architect of this new life.
On September 6th, I joined Yasmeen and hundreds of other young single Pakistani women who are moving overseas in pursuit of a better life. It has taken me a year to arrange for a one-way ticket to the United States, but I've thought of finding a new home for years.
Yasmeen is one of my three friends who moved overseas a few years ago. And as I landed in New York, three more are applying for visas for the Middle East and North America. In Pakistan, people tend to take a simplistic view of the life of young working women. Most of the people I tell of my move say something such as,
“Why are you leaving? You are educated, you have a career and you even hang out with men! What else do you need?”
I explain to them that I want to build a life of my own, which has proven next to impossible here. This only invites more questions and a tone of voice, which I can only describe as a combination of utter disbelief and disdain.
It is true that in comparison to millions of Pakistani women, I am quite privileged. Despite that, I don’t feel comfortable or even safe in my country, surrounded by my very own people. The reason is simple. Pakistani women are largely perceived as one of only two types:
As long as you follow the rules laid out by your family, community, society and others, you are “good”. It doesn’t matter if you are uneducated, poor, unhealthy and miserable; it’s more important to conform than build your own life.
If you are educated or opinionated, or if you financially or socially support your family, you fall into this category. The moment you stop following the rules or challenge them, you need to be put down metaphorically and sometimes literally.
As Pakistan becomes more urbanised and more women get access to education and contribute to their families’ finances, there is a new subset that is becoming increasingly visible in the female urban population. These women come from middle and working-class families. They are often the first women in their families to get a university degree and have a career. There is one remarkable characteristic that defines them – the grit to build a life of their own, despite the scorn and isolation they face. They are focused and independent. They are not out necessarily to change the world, just their own lives.
It is unfortunate that in many cases, the financial contribution and educational prowess of these young women are celebrated, yet their social and political views are seen as unwanted and incongruous. When women start to assert themselves and claim their space intellectually and physically, it becomes a problem.
Women are moving abroad because the deeply embedded misogyny in our society is holding them back. It is not just about getting away from the parents who are constantly pushing them to get married. It is also not about finding an escape from the ubiquitous male gaze. (Okay maybe, it is partly about those things).
It is more about building a world for them where they feel accepted and free to design their own day-to-day lives. It is not about luxury; it is about choice. It is about building something new, reinventing themselves in the image they have envisioned.
On more than one occasion, I have been told by my sanctimonious aunts,
“There is barkat (abundance or auspiciousness) in a man’s earning, which women aren’t blessed with. No matter how much you earn, you will never be as prosperous as a man.”
As a journalist, since the beginning of my career, my supervisors and senior colleagues told me to avoid beats such as crime and courts. As a woman, it looks bad on you if you frequent police stations, talk to criminals and rub shoulder with rough crowds at the court. Firstly, they say you are not safe, and secondly, it raises questions about your character.
Returning late from work is also a questionable routine. It is never seen as a sign of diligence. It only means one thing – you are hanging out with (male) colleagues and having a time of your life at the expense of the society’s values and your family’s reputation and honour.
What you do outside your home does not only affect your reputation in society, it also affects your sisters’ prospects of getting married, your mother’s ability to attend religious gatherings (because you become a hot topic for gossip), and the men in your family have to answer questions such as,
“We spotted your daughter in a busy market. Don’t you think you have given her too much freedom?”
“She is still a kid. You should not let her spend so much time outside the house.”
“I know your family is a respectable one, but other people don’t know that. It reflects badly on you when your daughter is seen in a car with unrelated men.”
It is as much about the sense of worth as the sense of belonging.
“Maybe this is best for you because you don’t belong here,” my sister said, the day I applied for the visa.
“America! You definitely belong there,” said an old friend.
When a point comes in your life when even your loved ones start to feel that you don’t belong to the very place you lived your whole life and called home, and you don’t fit in with the very people you grew up with, what else are you supposed to do?
These women are some of the most brilliant minds our country has to offer and they are leaving in droves. Our society is not providing them the space to grow and live their lives, squandering its own future just to keep women in their place.