While the evidence to support the value of higher education for personal and human development is overwhelming, there are plenty of deeply troubling signs, where higher education in Pakistan continues to be viewed with suspicion and can even become a liability. It is not unheard of, even in the more liberal and educated families, to evaluate the pursuit of higher education of the female members of the family in the light of future prospects of potential suitors or ‘rishtas’. When it comes to women, our social customs and norms tell us that if they are determined in their pursuit of higher education, they will probably never get married or at the very least, will have a hard time in getting married. The social pressure on parents of qualified and motivated young women to stifle their ambition to study is enormous. Many decide to succumb to this pressure and those few who push back find little support from family and broader circles.
An analysis of this situation reveals two key features of our society. The first is the deep sense of insecurity among the men. In a male-dominated society, it is inconceivable for men (and their supporters) to imagine their spouse to be more educated. This somehow, in our social conscience, attacks the structure and the fabric of society. To maintain the status quo, where the dominance of men must be supreme and universal, marrying someone who is more educated (or qualified, in broad terms) is considered an inappropriate action, regardless of other virtues of character.
The second aspect deals with our own view of what higher education does to one’s outlook, analytical ability and critical thinking. In many circles, having higher education, particularly in disciplines that demand deep intellectual engagement, is synonymous to an attack on customs and traditions. The often used term, ‘too educated’ (ziyada hi parh likh gayee) is a derogatory term, and not a mark of respect. Higher education in society is associated with liberalism and is viewed with a sense of suspicion that provides the student with tools to question authority and deeply held social values. Combined with the first factor, where there is an inherent insecurity among men, this sense of suspicion creates insurmountable barriers at home and in the closest of social circles for many women, from urban and rural backgrounds, to pursue their intellectual ambitions.
The only notable exception in this scenario is studying medicine, which is viewed favourably for potential suitors and their families for a variety of unfortunate reasons. This, too, leads to problems for many aspiring female doctors, who are viewed negatively and with immense suspicion by their peers and classmates and they are accused of pursuing medicine not for intellectual pursuit, humanitarian reasons or any other bigger cause, but for increasing their chances of marrying in a desirable family. The concept that there is something fundamentally wrong with education and critical thinking, and that the pursuit of higher education makes one less likely to have a comfortable family life is deeply disturbing. This is further exacerbated by the realisation that in our society girls outperform boys consistently across a wide variety of disciplines in nearly every age group.
A lot has been said and written about the barriers in access to higher education. We argue endlessly that better access is needed for peace, prosperity and social development. Indeed, in a country that is exploding with youth and has a limited number of institutions of quality, the demand is very high. But the issue of asymmetry in access cannot be fully resolved unless and until we address our deeply rooted, insecurity-laden social customs that put a back-breaking psychological burden on women and their families. It is not just the failure of the government that does not create more opportunities for women to pursue higher education; the failure rests with all of us who put our insecurity above intelligence and character.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 15th, 2015.