When Sadia Masood applied for university admission abroad, her mother stood by calmly, watching her daughter spend hours filling out forms, writing essays, and getting her documents in order. Privately, she thought that either Sadia wouldn’t make it or that, when the time came, she would change her mind about studying abroad.
After the gruelling application process and waiting, Sadia got admission into a prestigious computer science institute in Saarbrücken — a small German town close to the French border.
With its quaint architecture and a vibrant young population, Saarbrücken promised to be unlike anything Sadia had experienced before. A few days later, her passport arrived with a German visa stamped on it. That’s when Sadia’s mother flipped out.
“Germany?” she asked incredulously. “How on earth will you manage there on your own?”
What followed were days of back-and-forth arguments. Sadia insisted she wanted to go and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But her mother couldn’t accept the fact that she was letting her young, inexperienced daughter go to a strange land where she couldn’t even speak the language. One of the many objections she had was concern for Sadia’s health and safety.
But Sadia’s father and elder sister put their weight behind Sadia, and eventually her mother had to give in. After days of cajoling and reassurances, Sadia was on a plane to Frankfurt and, from there, on a train to Saarbrücken.
In retrospect, Sadia is amazed that her extended family didn’t object much to her leaving.
Only a handful of people considered a single girl’s move abroad to be a bad idea and they advised Sadia’s parents to get their daughter married off before she left.
Luckily for Sadia, her parents didn’t heed this advice and her mother eventually got around the idea of her daughter doing just fine by herself. In fact, says Sadia, “On certain occasions, I found my mother appreciating my decision.”
Perhaps a greater number of girls in Pakistan are leaving home for higher education than at any other time, thanks to the increasing availabilty of scholarships, from the Fulbright to those sponsored by the Higher Education Commission.
As the number of scholarships for girls has grown, so has social acceptability of the fact that single girls can venture out and live on their own for the sake of education.
This freedom was largely inconceivable for our mothers’ generation, when the majority of girls completed their intermediate level already engaged, ready for marriage and domestic duties.
Interestingly, it is these women who are now changing with the times and letting go of their daughters, encouraging them to explore their options and develop their potential — although somewhat nervously.
Naghma Nasir, who has two daughters studying in Malaysia, was apprehensive when her younger daughter first broached the idea of moving out.
It was a big deal that Rimsha, 18 at the time, wanted to leave her home and live on her own in a foreign land. “You have all sorts of comforts here, you have your family here, and it’s cheaper too. Why do you want to go to Malaysia?” she questioned.
Pressure from Naghma’s own family was also intense. To those of a more traditional bent, it was a stigma for a young girl to live alone and away from the protective family grove. “Will you send your daughters away to live alone?” Naghma’s mother would ask.
What made the idea so worrisome was that the girls were young, single and, as their family thought, susceptible — there was simply too much that could go wrong. It took some explaining on Rimsha’s part to convince her mother to let her go.
Malaysia was a better place than Pakistan to study Interior Architecture, she would earnestly argue. Seeing her daughter’s avidness for her chosen field is what tilted the balance in her favour. And so, despite the family pressure, Naghma relented and let her daughter go.
Naghma’s concerns echo that old chestnut in our society of keeping girls protected and grounded for their own good. To some extent, it makes sense. A woman’s future and marital prospects are closely tied to her honour.
Breaking the rules of social conduct set by society for her, such as dressing a certain way, sticking to a curfew time and avoiding certain no-go areas, can cause irreparable damage to her reputation and potentially harm her prospects for landing a suitable marriage proposal. But while living abroad, these rules of conduct are likely to be in direct conflict with the new society she is trying to adjust into.
For parents, letting a girl live on her own is a bigger deal than letting a guy find his own feet — and not just because of the ‘manly’ tasks she’ll have to handle. No matter how educated and street-smart she may be, certain inhibitions continue to stick in the minds of people about a girl living on her own, without the protective eye of her elders on her.
To many, having lived alone implies that a girl’s models may have been corrupted and that she may have had intimate relationships with guys. The independence of living on one’s own might also mean that a girl may no longer feel the need to ask elders before going out of the house, she may have become ‘modern’ in her dressing or that she might be too inflexible to make compromises after marriage.
While such freedoms are the hallmarks of western lifestyle, Pakistani society at large is yet to come to terms with them. A girl living on her own abroad may want to make adjustments, such as frequenting clubs and bars to socialise with the people around her, and to fit into a foreign society. All this is unlikely to be in compliance with her parents’ and her native society’s expectations. It is this fear that has haunted Pakistani parents and discouraged them from sending their girls abroad.
By their own admission, girls may change in ways that are not encouraged while living with family. Without parental badgering or societal judgments, you become used to not having to inform anyone about a night out with friends, and takeout dinners will become the norm sans lectures on the health hazards from your mom.
Rimsha comes home every six months, so she says she is reminded of what her culture is like. But for someone who comes to Pakistan after three or four years, there could be real adjustment issues. When Rimsha’s friend drinks, it often leads to a fall out with her mother, who wants her daughters to surround themselves with people with similar values. “Many parents even restrict their daughters’ dressing out of fear for their security, telling them not to wear sleevelesses or to go easy on the low necks, even if they were considerably liberal in Pakistan,” says Rimsha.
Another issue that crops up is that, no matter how safe the city you live in, your parents will always be worried for your security. Rimsha says that the list of unrealistic expectations her parents have of her includes them demanding that she be home by Maghrib. “That is not always possible since I often have group assignments. They don’t understand that. They call at 8 or 9 in the night to check on me and freak out if I don’t pick up.” She is also expected to Skype everyday for an hour, something that would not be expected from a guy.
Yet, Rimsha’s young age spares her parents one grave concern: that she will cross her eligible age for marriage when she returns. Many parents oppose their daughters leaving for studies abroad simply because their education will effectively eat into the years of finding a suitable match. Also, since girls who’ve lived on their own abroad are perceived as having a somewhat licentious lifestyle, this too reduces their chances of finding a suitable partner in an arranged marriage.
Mrs. Alam, a veteran match-maker in Defence, says that while most prospective grooms and their mothers ask for girls not older than 26 years, there is no dearth of “broad-minded people” who are happy to have foreign educated daughters-in law who have lived alone abroad. According to Rubina Khan, a match-maker in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, such girls are becoming sought-after given their ability to offer financial support in times of inflation and job insecurity.
Sadia does think that her independent lifestyle may pose a problem when she begins her married life. “I am used to living alone and doing what I want without informing anyone,” she says. “But I intend to communicate with my husband and try to find a way to live together and still be able to enjoy our freedoms.”
Yet, it is encouraging to see that people are sending away their daughters for higher education despite these fears and concerns. Farah Sultana Akbar, an ethnic Hazara from Quetta, was just 20 when she left her hometown and became the first girl in her family to have gone for higher studies in 2004. With her parents’ support, she completed her Masters in Literature from Karachi University and lived in the girls’ hostel with 14 other girls. “My extended family, which included my grandparents, was not really happy with the decision,” she says. “They never told me directly, but I know that my aunts and grandparents were trying to discourage my father from sending me by planting doubts in his mind.”
But attitudes have changed — even in a place like Quetta where traditions trump modernity. “I was the first one and that’s why it was difficult for the extended family to accept. But after me, there were at least five other girls who left Quetta for further studies,” says Farah. And the same grandfather who had opposed Farah’s leaving the city started telling his granddaughter that she should now do a double PhD.
“Whenever I used to come home for vacations, he was the person who was most interested in my work. He would ask me what exactly it was that I do, what I study, how I plan my future!” she says. And in a place where parents and the family plan a woman’s future, that was a huge change.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 29th, 2012.