Rishta brigade

Published in Spider (Dawn Group of Newspapers) – March 2014

mehndiBy Ayesha Hoda

“Muslim, Sunni, Syed, Pakistani, Pashtun, moderate, hailing from upper middle class, living in Dubai in a nuclear family, never married before, no children athletic, no physical disabilities, 6 feet 1 inch in height with a very fair complexion and non-vegetarian (halal) diet.”

This is one of the many descriptions of the eligible men on the countless Pakistani matrimonial web portals such as Pakistanimatrimony.com and Mehndi.com. If you have set your relationship status as “Single” on Facebook, you will see many ads and sponsored links offering to pair you up with the most eligible Pakistani Muslim man or woman.

Much like an eager and pestering rishta aunty, these websites typically ask you a thousand questions about yourself, including religion, social status, physical appearance, geographic location, cultural background, hobbies and interests. They give third parties, such as parents, siblings, relatives or friends the option to make a profile on someone else’s behalf, which is uploaded on a searchable database on the website.

After registering and updating your details, you can either wait for suitors (or their parents) to visit your profile or search for the “ideal” partner by entering the desired characteristics, in tools such as advanced search or auto matchmaker, and voila, you have at least a thousand plus matches available. These websites further promise that you will get better matches if you update a good profile picture. Arranged marriage just got easier with modern technology – no dependency on the not-so well wishing neighbours, relatives and friends to recommend someone – or so one would assume.
Sadly, the reality is quite far from this. While matrimonial sites are sometimes regarded as an Indian e-business success story, one rarely hears of any marriage in Pakistan that has been initiated through one of the local matrimonial websites.
Salman Siddiqui, a Pakistan PR professional residing in Singapore, is cynical about these sites because of the numerous stories he has heard in his social circle. “I think matrimonial websites are for either perverted men who sign up for the sole purpose to exploit others for their own indulgence or ‘kitchen-bound aunties’, in desperate hope to find a complete stranger for their inexperienced children. Marrying someone off the Internet is quite deplorable. Sure, one can meet another for dating and to see how it goes from there, but if your prime objective is to wed the person sitting on the other side of the screen, then my friend, you need psychotherapy.”

Too harsh and judgmental, some would think. But Salman’s opinion is based on a friend’s experience, who was “a victim of such heinous motives… it happens in Pakistan and even in India on daily a basis,” he says.

Harris Siddiqui, whose work revolves around web development and social media, reveals that many owners of these websites create them for the sole purpose of earning money through premium memberships, advertising and affiliate programs. For this they need to build a community for six months and therefore create many fake profiles of women and advertise “success stories”, luring people facing social pressure to tie the knot, especially women (as the proverbial clock is supposedly ticking!). Harris thinks these sites in Pakistan are rarely authentic and the matrimonial sections in newspapers are more effective.

Revenue generation does seem to be the main focus of these sites, some of which were also offering discount deals on Valentine’s Day. The commercialization of marriage seems to have no bounds!

Across borders
Matrimonial sites seem to have more success in India or for South Asians living abroad. While researching for this article, I came across a few real success stories. Zehra Farhan, a freelance writer, shares, “Matrimonial websites may not be of much use here in Pakistan but are useful for desis living abroad. One of my cousins in Canada got married through www.shaadi.com. Her mother searched for suitors on the website and found her husband, a Muslim of Indian descent from Singapore who was living and working in the US. So their experience has been great. You just need to be serious and look for other serious people. Most of the time, you can judge the seriousness on the other side, especially when parents are involved and operating the account. My relatives did not go for a Pakistani website, however, as most users there seemed to have registered for stalking rather than serious matchmaking.”

An Indian doctor, Amir Husain, shares how his family found his young sister’s second husband through shaadi.com after her divorce. He says there are many such Indian websites, with some exclusively for people who are divorced or widowed. Users can choose the level of confidentiality in account settings and find someone without the concerns and suggestions of all and sundry.

“Of course we were extra cautious while narrowing down the possible matches the system generated,” Amir says. “After selection you start communicating. It’s a time consuming process and ultimately takes a leap of faith, but then aren’t all marriages the same?”

Clearly South Asians living abroad are getting ideas based on the success of websites like shaadi.com. A new website called Hipster Shaadi – http://www.hipstershaadi.com – created by a group of American Muslims, seems to be a step in this direction. It has been defined by The Guardian as “the matchmaking site for hip young Muslims”. It gives people the option of making a unique profile, based on their individuality and preferences, rather than focusing on social status and visual appearance.

If you live abroad and can fathom the concept of online marriage-broking, these websites may be the route to go for a non-traditional arranged marriage, which might actually be less embarrassing and nerve-racking than the typical drawing room setting option.

Let’s Gtalk!

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” – Oscar Wilde

DAWN Inpaper Magazine | 12th August, 2012

Originally published here.

Young people are finding it easier to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in life online

“I am at this new café in #Karachi having the best chocolate mousse cake ever!” — says the latest tweet on my Twitter timeline as I begin to write this article.

The online world can be very superficial at times, giving people a chance to brag about their consumerism. Facebook updates of exotic travel photos and restaurant check-ins are enough to make anyone delirious with envy. No wonder that some research studies reveal how over-connectedness may actually increase feelings of loneliness and mood swings.

While I agree with this downside of online interactions, I’ve also observed a rather positive aspect of the cyberspace in the last couple of years as Pakistanis have become more active online. Through personal experiences and by talking to young, internet savvy people around me, I’ve realised that often active users of social networks and chat programs use these platforms to vent out and express their true feelings.

Here I am not referring to anonymous websites (where people post their dark secrets on message boards) or blogging, but to personal interactions with people you are acquainted with or may have met in real life — that random person in college who will always say hello or someone you met at a picnic and later added on Facebook. Face to face, the conversation will generally not move beyond subjects of mutual interest. But you often see a different side of these people online.

Though there is a lot of room for exaggeration and dishonesty online, young people do seem more comfortable sharing their thoughts over controversial subjects or issues in their own lives over the internet.

In this context, I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Today the internet seems to be that mask — you’re connected but there is still a safe distance. And this is not only the case with introverts or shy people. At times people are looking for internet catharsis or advice. There have been instances where I’ve played an agony aunt-type role with classmates or acquaintances choosing to share their personal issues on chat programs.

This might be because as a society we are still not open to counselling, social support groups or simply talking about subjects like divorce, child abuse, therapy, mental health, etc. on a personal level as opposed to general discussions or gossip. Log on to Twitter and you will see people sharing their personal stories. Tweet about emotions, relationships and life experiences, and voila, strangers will tell you how you’re not alone and start sharing their own hopes, dreams and miseries with you.

“Often social media has been my only respite and I love it for that!” reveals Huma Iqbal, a communications professional. “I vent out, get angry, use swear words and sometimes even thrash people online for being mean to me. These are things I might not do in real life when I’m angry and I get a mixed response. Some friends encourage me whereas others send me texts or emails to stop sharing so much online and to be cautious about online security.”

Due to security and privacy concerns, some people find creative ways to vent their feelings without giving away too much information. Taha Kehar, a 20-year-old law student, says: “Whenever I have taken the conscious decision to vent over Facebook/Twitter, it has either been through a cryptic status or a couplet that encompasses my distress. I think it takes a very perceptive individual to understand my exact emotions in such circumstances. So overall the response has been favourable.
More often than not, people do not leave bizarre comments. With time, they have learnt to give each other some personal space online.”

Tehreem Mehmood, who works for an ad agency in Karachi, says she likes becoming friends with people online though these friendships may not always last long. “But letting out everything in front of someone is such a relief,” she adds. “I have one internet friend, who I’ve met only once in real life but we help each other solve problems. Even when we fail to solve problems we can at least listen to each other. We realise that the most important aspect of this online friendship is confidentiality so we are good at guarding secrets and trust each other.”

At times the trust or friendship may be an illusion, or it may be a one-off experience where a person needs a non-judgmental, listening ear in a particular situation, but the internet certainly helps fill a void for many. If nothing else, it reassures you that you’re not alone in melancholy.

Learning to realise we’re all OK

Published on The Express Tribune Blog

Original Link

The best-selling self-help book by Thomas A Harris M.D.

While perusing the best selling self-help book:

I’M OK You’re OK by psychiatrist Thomas A Harris MD, one realises how well the theory of the ‘not OK child’ can be applied to a number of Pakistanis (not only as individuals, but as representatives of the nation).

Briefly, the book reveals that there are four life positions that each person can take:

  1. I’m not OK, you’re OK
  2. I’m not OK, you’re not OK
  3. I’m OK, you’re not OK
  4. I’m OK, you’re OK

Most children initially take the position of” I’m not OK, you’re OK”. They see adults as strong and competent and themselves as weak and prone to making mistakes.

As they grow older, some children may take the position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” or “I’m OK, you’re not OK” (if abused or mistreated). With the right kind of environment, love and encouragement, some change positions to I’m OK, you’re OK, which is ideal.

However, many remain in the first position: “I’m not OK, you’re OK”. This is why they play the game of “mine is better than yours”- my doll is better than yours, my house is bigger than yours and so on – which becomes more sophisticated as they grow up. This game helps them feel better about themselves for a short period of time, though deep down they know that they are still not okay.

Is Pakistan ‘okay’?

How does this theory apply to us?  Consider the many people who constantly engage in India-bashing. Is this because they are actually better?  Do they care about the cause of Kashmir, Gujarati Muslims or Babri Mosque or are they just trying to hide their own flaws?

Even within the country, the same theory can be applied. One ethnicity or sect claims to be better than the other. In reality, the ethnic group wants to  establish its superiority and thinks that the only way to do so is by making the others look bad.

Some may argue that there is a natural bias or competition with India and among provinces – so why do we spend so much energy bashing the west? Many covetously eye the green card while simultaneously pointing their finger at an adulterous wine-drinking West.

Now, with the recent rise in Pakistan-bashing by various local as well as foreign media outlets, Pakistanis (like the abused child) seem to have moved into the position of “I’m not OK, you’re not OK”: I’m not good enough, but neither are you. I cannot accept my flaws without pointing out yours as well.

For a change, why not recognize the good in others and ourselves?

I’m all for promoting a positive image of Pakistan – highlighting the good aspects of the country like Granta Magazine, a foreign publication, has recently done. But we need to also realize that criticising other nations does not improve our image.

Be objective and start questioning the prejudices passed down by our parents. One can consider the possibility that Indians are hard working, that American society has some praise-worthy traits and Pathans are generally quite hospitable.

In short, it is alright to encourage socio-political dissent and debate, but one should also look at the positives and at least try to move towards the ideal position: I’m OK and so are you!

Attitude: Symbols of identity

Published in The Review (Dawn) on October 10, 2010

Original Link

By Ayesha Hoda

Courtesy: Dawn

Money, they say, doesn’t buy happiness. And yet most people seem to run after it. The pursuit of wealth, rising levels of consumerism and focus on economic gains from marriages are issues that have been debated and researched to death. It is interesting to explore why people are attracted to wealth, the status symbols, and if it actually makes a difference to who they are.

In one of the famous classics, Pride and Prejudice, the country people are impressed by Mr Darcy — a newcomer in Hertfordshire — because of his large fortune but once they discover how proud he is, they start ignoring him. On the other hand, his friend Mr Bingley, with a comparatively smaller fortune, is well-liked due to his humbleness.

However, things seem to have changed a great deal from 19th century England. Apparently, the adjectives ‘snob’ and ‘show-off’ have lost their negative connotations. The more you can boast convincingly, the greater a person you are, many believe.

Many people not only want to possess something that elevates their social position but also like to be associated with those who have more, irrespective of their personality traits. This phenomenon is ever-increasing and more apparent when one enters professional life (the real world, as they say).

It’s not difficult to notice people trying hard to place you based on the car you ride, the locality you live in, and the people you know. You can notice the change in their expressions and opinion of you when you mention that you have attended two top private universities in the country — supposedly the ‘second home of the elite’. Some are impressed, others seem to resent it. Several others just take it casually.

Maheen, a designer, says, “When I landed up in a good job, many of my class fellows who had never called or even talked to me were very friendly all of a sudden.”

Hassan, 26, who works for a multinational IT firm, agrees, “When I tell people where I studied and where I work, they are really impressed. This may come under professional networking but in one way or another, it influences my social life as well.”

The question one would like to ask is: what do people seek to gain where professional networking is not the objective?

A colleague points out that plans of extracting future favours or advantages may be one of the reasons why people like to please their affluent relatives and other acquaintances. And it’s a myth that only the less affluent are gold-diggers or ones seeking to cash in on their connections.

However, associating with the wealthy and moving in important social circles is not only the means to an end but sometimes the end itself — the objective. Your best friends are no longer people of varying income levels, who you can be comfortable with, confide in, laugh and cry with, without being judged — in short, be yourself. They are ones who can entertain at posh restaurants, buy designer stuff and gossip about those who can’t afford to do so. Sociologist Anthony Giddens’ theory of pure relationships — love or close friendship that exists when the connection with the other person is valued for its own sake — can then easily go out of the window.

But it doesn’t end there. People are not always in awe of what you have. Often it’s greed vs envy. A conflict occurs in a superficial relationship. More often than not a financial or status imbalance leads to competitiveness, as Hassan admits, “When I meet someone who tries to consciously mention his material possessions, I ‘consciously’ use it as a counter tool.”

All this leads one to the question: who is this person without his social standing — minus his gold credit card, a brand new cell phone, club membership, foreign degree and a monthly income in six figures.

Status symbols can greatly differ from country to country, and even at times, from one city to another. Their attractiveness may last for quite some time, but eventually meets its end. One also wonders whether these symbols can really help one connect with other people and shape one’s identity.

Infatuation with higher social position can become an obsession. People can get caught up in myriad complexes, with less time for personal development; pursuing affluence and being pursued because of it, having friends with money, but not many real friends.

Being a woman in Pakistan

Published on 19th Sep, 2010 on The Express Tribune Blog

Original Link

A painting by Cynthia Angeles titled Grief

Society, especially Pakistani society, thrives on gossip and slander. While urban socialites love talking of women’s emancipation and rights in general, they often fail to see the rigid mindsets within their own circle. Back biting and slander are not viewed as vices or sins in our society where every other person likes to preach. In fact, people feel they have a right to comment, criticize and judge especially if an issue or circumstance pertains to a woman.

Try to make it work

As long as a woman continues to be the sufferering victim (bechari) in any situation, people are satisfied. They may sympathize with her and pity her for being so unfortunate. However, if she takes charge of her life and makes decisions to alleviate her suffering, then she is perceived as a negative person. For instance, if a woman decides to take a divorce from her abusive husband, then people start speculating if it is wise of her to go to court – supposedly where few decent people are seen. How will this decision affect the future of her daughters? Will they face problems in getting marriage proposals or not? Without any in-depth knowledge or understanding of the situation, relatives and acquaintances give their verdict:

She should try harder to make her marriage work.

They are unaware of the negative psychological and emotional impact the dysfunctional family life has on the woman and her children. If the woman does not choose to share all the private, painful details of her marital problems then their verdict is final.

Taboos and remarriage

When a divorced woman decides to get married again, the situation almost always gets worse – especially if she is marrying by choice. People blame her for the first unhappy marriage. They raise questions about her character

How can she have found someone so quickly? Was she having an affair during her first marriage? How must her poor kids feel?

She is seen and projected as selfish and clever, perhaps even wicked. On the other hand, a second marriage is seen as the most natural thing for a man in a similar situation.

Single modern woman

Even single women who choose to ignore the demands of our society and do as they please with their lives – work where they want to, marry when they want to, date etc. – are described as rebellious, too modern, incapable of having a family life and so on.

No matter what the situation, some people do not merely discuss what a woman is doing – they judge it. Despite being wholly unconnected, they offer their ill-informed advice and opinions in order to discourage the woman from making a decision that will help her be free and happy.

Unfortunately it is women who are the biggest critics of women – those who believe they know how to make their relationships or other things work better; those who are unhappy and restricted themselves but not strong enough to take a stand; bored housewives; those who resent the happiness of others and those who merely love to gossip.

Inhibited independence

By Ayesha Hoda

Published in The Review (Dawn) on July 11, 2010

Original Link

Illustration by Ghazala

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.

Reason for hope

Published in Books & Authors (Dawn) on April 26, 2009

Original Link

Reviewed by Ayesha Hoda

Courtesy: Indiaclub.com

Storm in Chandigarh, like Nayantara Sahgal’s other works, revolves around the political change, value systems and feminist ideas in India and how all these had an impact on the upper strata of Indian society.

A well-known political journalist and an Indian author writing in English, Sahgal has won several accolades for her work. Politics is the focus of her writings as it influenced her personal life from a very young age. She is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was also India’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Sahgal’s father was also an Indian freedom fighter.

Hence, an in-depth understanding of politics and history comes naturally to the author and her writing reflects the fact that she is strongly attached to her roots.

Storm in Chandigarh, her third novel, was first published in 1969. As the name implies, it is based in Chandigarh, the city that serves as the capital of two Indian states, Punjab and Haryana. The novel is set after 1966, when the state of Haryana had been newly created out of the eastern part of Punjab, dividing the Hindi-speaking population from the Punjabi-speakers.

‘It still seemed grotesque that a metaphoric line had been drawn through the Punjab, that millions who had till yesterday been Punjabis had suddenly become Haryanavis, sanctifying another language and spouting another nationalism.’

This division on the basis of language led to disputes over boundaries and water and electric power sharing between the two states. ‘The centre had allowed the Punjab to be re-divided 20 years after the gruelling Partition of 1947. Why had this new mess been created?’

This is what the protagonist Vishal Dubey wants to ask. A civil servant in Delhi, Dubey is assigned the task of relocating to the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana. His role is to act as a liaison officer between Delhi and the two state governments.

Gyan Singh is the chief minister of Punjab while Harpal Singh is the chief minister of Haryana. Throughout the novel Dubey endeavours to understand these two characters and to resolve their conflict.

‘Between Gyan and Harpal, he now realised, there was more than a political battle. It was a battle of philosophies. The juster but vaguer range of possibility could seldom hold out against violent immediate claims supported by the obvious.’

This main plot is interwoven with glimpses of Dubey’s married life and tales of the other characters linked to him: Gauri, Mara and Jit, Saroj and Inder. Their stories are primarily of unhappy marriages and dysfunctional relationships.

Dubey is inflicted by the lack of communication with his wife and then by her sudden death. Gauri has a comfortable arranged marriage which lacks excitement. Jit wants to discover the source of unhappiness in Mara’s life, while Saroj is haunted by her husband’s rigid thought patterns, his insecurities and unpredictability. Through the protagonist Sahgal questions the stereotypical roles eastern husbands and wives are expected to play. Dubey also expresses concern over inflexible beliefs in Indian society regarding morality, the caste system and gender equality:

‘What people called morality touched their oldest and most cherished prejudices.’

And he attempts to define higher morality: ‘It’s a search for value, and an attempt to choose the better value, the real value, in any situation, and not just do what’s done or what is expected. ’

Despite the account of the political rift and the turmoil all the characters are entangled in, the narrative generally gives a feeling of hope. Simply written, it leads readers to the conclusion that things can change for the better, for a country as well as for an individual.

Storm in Chandigrah

By Nayantara Sahgal

Penguin Books, India

ISBN 0-14-310276-2 222pp.

Indian Rs250