By Ayesha Hoda
The girl next door is smart and sensible. Surrounded by a group of friends at a café, she seems to be at ease, chatting and laughing away, as if without a care in the world. This is the economically independent Pakistani woman, in control of her life, or so it seems at a glance.
Lurking somewhere in the corner of her mind are some invisible pressures, which make her feel uncertain about life and her future. Conflicts still exist between women and their families and women and society. Back in the days when I was studying advertising at an art school in Karachi, very few girls said they would opt for a career at an advertising agency. I was one of the few who did and met with the question, ‘Will your in-laws allow it?’
As someone who was not even engaged, I was a bit taken aback — not only by the stereotypical concept of a necessarily suspicious environment at an ad agency but also by the fact that I needed to consider the wishes of people who I had not even yet met. The question was raised by a ‘modern’, young girl from a high income family, with what I would call significant exposure to the world.
The gist of that conversation was: if a woman wants to choose a profession, she needs to not only think of her own wishes or her family’s views about the work or the workplace environment, but also whether the society (future in-laws included) will consider it right or not (based on the rumours they may have heard).
“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving,” wrote William Shakespeare in Othello (in completely different circumstances). But I digress…
Back to the twenty-first century, the society in Pakistan still seems to play an important role in most decisions, especially those taken by women — everything is linked to their reputation. We hear stories of families, with rigid mindsets, forcing their girls to fulfil the wishes of all and sundry (except their own). But then again, seemingly independent and outgoing women, from apparently less conservative households, also seem to be affected in one way or another by social pressures or mindsets — like invisible chains, they keep women entangled.
No matter how educated or decent a woman is, if she does not conform to the social norms then there must be something wrong. Concepts of conformity also seem to be changing. Earlier, in the typical arranged marriage setting, the question often raised was whether the prospective daughter-in-law would be working after marriage or not, and if yes, then what would be the working hours? These questions were not always raised by the husband-to-be but often by his family members. Now, with materialistic values seeping in, some of the eager (read: greedy) mothers-in-law can be found saying: you have to work after marriage; what is your salary; we want an MBA from…!
Women are now partners in providing for their household, which is not a bad thing, if only they get to control the purse strings.
Some may argue that women don’t have it easy anywhere in the world. But in Pakistan, social pressures exist not only when it comes to taking major decisions but also in a woman’s daily life, restricting her mobility and activities. Several girls, these days, are allowed to study in co-educational institutes at university level (only because there is no other option) but they are not allowed to socialise or eat out with male colleagues, even in a group. “You will be seen there by the who’s who of our community”, opine the authority figures in the household.
Many single women are not permitted by their families to go abroad or even to another city, for education or work, because they will be living alone or amidst strangers. And this is not always due to concern for their security. Often, the concern stems from a lack of trust and fear of disapproval from society, as there will be no one to keep an eye on them.
Things are changing and more women are getting a say in their lives. Arif, a young marketer, is of the view that depiction of strong-willed women in TV soaps is influencing women’s decisions a lot, whether they are about fashion, managing relationships or sale and purchase. But the urban, independent Pakistani woman is still stressed.
Half of her problems would be solved if face-saving was not such a cherished attribute of our society and if it was not so strongly linked to women. We all need to be associated with a social group based on norms but I’m against those who give social acceptance its excruciating boundaries just for the sake of keeping women suppressed.