Pakistani women venture into fields that were previously considered to be a ‘man’s domain’
Revolutions are, by their inherent nature, loud and fearless. But in Pakistan, a silent revolution is slowly and noticeably reshaping the structure of society – redefining pre-existing attitudes towards gender roles. Women, who were once expected to be seen and not heard, are now stepping outside the comfort of conventional or safe career paths, such as teaching and nursing, to cement their role in professions they were once alien to.
Experimenting with science
When it comes to women in science, the West has always stood out with prominent names such as Madam Curie, a pioneer in conducting radioactivity research. While Pakistan may not top the list, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ ‘Employment Trends 2011’ report only 24.4% of women in the country are classified as working women, it is making headway in this field.
Standing against all odds, Dr Mariam Sultana, who is the first Pakistani woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics, is now a lecturer at the mathematical sciences department of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology. “Gender inequality is a primitive concept in the cities now. It may still be prevalent in rural areas where women [continue to] face many challenges, but there is no such thing in Karachi,” she says assuredly. Although Sultana’s challenges did not stem from deep gender biases, she faced a great deal of disapproval from her students and their parents, who confused astronomy with astrology and declared the subject ‘haram’.
While engineering is another perceived no-go area for women, the classroom dynamics are now changing with more and more female students filling the seats at engineering universities across Pakistan. Nida Farid, who studied aerospace engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in United States, is now a renewable energy consultant, specialising in wind energy, in Pakistan. She even played an active part in the construction of electro-structural components for the Airbus project in Switzerland and continues to shrug off filial and social pressures to switch to a more conventional job.
Driving through barriers
Pakistani women have taken to the roads as well and are making headway in the transportation sector. Many women from Lyari, Karachi, in a bid to lead independent lives, have taken up driving to earn an income. Forty-year-old Shabana Parveen, from Surjani Town, Karachi, who has been in the pick-and-drop business for primary students for the past 10 years, says that although she’s always been passionate about driving, she only recently took up the profession. After marrying a low-wage factory worker, she had to contribute to the family income to make ends meet. “I took a taxi on rent to support my family,” she says.
Stories of women taking charge of the wheel are plenty. Wajeeha, a 12-year-old from Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been riding a rickshaw since 2010 after her father, a soldier, was severely wounded in a clash with the Taliban and was no longer able to financially support his family. She also never let her work get in the way of her education and simultaneously completed her schooling.
Dodging the bullet
A surprising number of Pakistani women have also joined the military and police forces since 2006 and Ayesha Farooq became Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot in 2013. Along with defending the country, Pakistani women have entered the field of security to claim their right at equal employment opportunities. Shahnaz, heading the female wing of a private security service, is currently employed as a security head at the Karachi University. She arrives daily before students to make sure no outsider enters the premises without prior permission. “I did not want to get married and that made survival [in society] quite [difficult],” she says, adding that she took up the job so she could be independent.
Rebranding the word ‘woman’
While women across the world have proven to be convincing in sales, Pakistani women have only recently realised their potential in the field. With a number of boutiques and supermarkets springing up in city centres, women have taken up the opportunity to earn a steady income by selling wares and assisting customers. Sumaira, who runs her shop for ready-to-wear clothes in Hyderi market, Karachi, is an ideal example of women who’ve excelled in the field. “It is a constant struggle to ignore comments and focus on your work,” she says, adding that despite the negativity she hasn’t stopped going to work.
While Pakistan may still be light years away from complete gender equality, its women have surely set out on the right foot. Their relentless efforts are not only bridging the gender gap but also motivating others to follow suit.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, September 7th, 2014.