By Amna Shaikh
Musings of a Foreign Born Muslim Woman
As a 25-year-old woman who was raised abroad and greatly values the empowerment and independence of women, I find it a struggle at times to roam the streets of Pakistan. Growing up in Singapore I was exposed to a variety of cultural and religious values regarding the role of women in society. From hijab wearing Malaysian Muslim women working at Abercrombie and Fitch to Singaporean Chinese women working as CEOs of multi-national corporations. Growing up as a Muslim girl in Singapore I never felt as anything less or different when it came to being female. I was encouraged by my parents to expose myself to as much as possible and explore what cultures, religions and places the world had to offer. To this day, my parents value the education of their daughters more than their sons. They always emphasized the importance of a woman being able to stand on her own two feet and be independent and strong in who she is. Seeing my mother’s fearlessness to get involved in her community, her interest in working for the good of others and her strength I was inspired to be empowered myself. I never felt there was anything a male could do which I could not.
Although Karachi is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual urban city and port, it is dominated by a patriarchal mindset and a sea of men congesting the bazaars, restaurants and most open spaces. In Karachi the women you do see roaming the streets are usually those of a lower or middle class status. These women are going to and from work or school and must utilize public transportation or ride with male family members on the back of motorcycles as their means of mobilization. When you see these women outside, they are usually dawning a black cloak with their full body and faces covered except for their eyes. On motorbikes they are gracefully sitting behind a man, with both legs dangling off one side, at times with a baby in their arms and child or two in front of them. I have yet to see a woman riding a motorbike in a straddling position which is not only more logical but also safer. God forbid a woman straddles anything and display such blatantly vulgar and sexually promiscuous behavior even if it is for her balance and safety. It could bring shame to the family and every person she knows.
Interestingly, as soon as these women enter the confines of their work or school, which may be co-ed, the cloaks come off, the hair is no longer covered and at times jewelry or even make-are dawned. It is as if outside has become synonymous with a place a woman should never be completely seen or noticed, a place no respected woman belongs.
Once within the safety of the indoors, a man and woman are treated at almost the same level. A woman is greatly respected by her male colleagues and works alongside them just like any man. Women can be observed in some of the most respected or needed professions whether it is civil service, medicine, nursing, or banking.
A woman may be educated, begin a career and earn her respect in the workplace, but in the social realm she will still not be held on the same platform as a man. Even women of the upper crust of Pakistani society whom you see being chauffeured around Karachi and Lahore find themselves struggling to be their own person and not another daughter or wife of “so and so”, without dishonoring their family’s name. Many girls may study abroad, even get their masters in economics and in doing so tick another box within the ready for marriage check list. They come home to Pakistan to marry, pop out children and due to gender restraints or at times by choice, stay at home and raise the children with the help of a nanny or two. Some of these women may even go so far with their career to start a gift wrapping or tailoring business! While At times staying home is by choice, others it is due to culturally related restraints of the family. To a depressing degree, in many circumstances higher education has become a marriage qualification instead of a path to empowerment. A woman is not a recognized person of society until she is a married woman. Once she has children and a family, she can be looked upon as a complete person and not just another bachara (poor thing).
When it comes to the elite of Pakistan, women may be completely independent and empowered in every sense of the world within their own circles but when it comes to stepping outside alone in jeans, a form fitting shirt and no scarf to throw over your chest, it is just not safe. There is the fear of being starred at with every step she may take in every direction, the fear of being raped for the majority of men and women would say “ she was asking for it wearing those clothes”, and the fear of simply being killed. The Pakistani mindset does not yet have the ability nor has it taken any step in the direction to see women as people and not a separate class of being.
After working as a volunteer nursing educator at The Indus Hospital in Karachi, I decided I wanted to work in a different part of the country. I have dreamed about working and traveling in Northern Pakistan since I was a teenager. Finally, through working with Aga Khan Health Services my dream came true. I came to the northern areas to volunteer as a nursing educator and clinical instructor. Before coming here, most people in Karachi would mention three main points about northern Pakistan; the incredible beauty, people being far more educated than anywhere else in the country and how women are more liberated. While the first two points are very true, I find the third less so.
In the northern rural areas of Pakistan the same fearful behavior of women is observed but to a greater extreme. Driving through the bazaars of Abbotobad, Chilas and Beesham not a woman is in site. They are all hidden away within the confines of their home, school or work from which they scuttle to and from. On my way through the Karakorum Highway and once I arrived in Gilgit I was shocked at the site of completely male infested bazaars, tea houses and shops with barely a single XX carrying chromosome person in view. Previously, I was encouraged by everyone’s comments on how people around Gilgit-Baltistan and Hunza are educated, how women rarely cover their hair, how women are out and about in the streets. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps education does not eradicate a deeply culturally engrained mindset of an entire generation of people.
If women are seen, they are usually covering their hair, nose and mouth with a large scarf and quietly scuttling to their next destination trying to go unnoticed or walking with one or more other women. Perhaps like cattle, its safer to go in numbers. It really is as if women are rare animals, which need to be kept indoors for fear they might weaken runaway or get too comfortable to strut outdoors, which may be culturally unacceptable. Simply walking through a bazaar in Gilgit with a scarf loosely draped over my head, I felt at least half the men in town turned to stare at me. Was it due to me looking different or because I looked up as I walked alone? Going running in Gilgit was humorous to a certain extent. In a forty minute run by the river I passed only one woman shyly walking with her head covered and the rest, men, men, men, men, men. All of which stopped dead in their tracks to turn and stare at the woman who had gone for a run.
Working in Aliabad, Hunza I have observed how women are not only highly educated, but very respected. This could be due to the higher percentage of education in Hunza, the Ismaili influence or both. Here women, like in Karachi, work alongside men and in the workplace are treated at an equal level. Men and women look at each other in the eye when talking and even shake hands. Yet once again, when walking out in the streets women are in groups, draped in shawls scurrying from one place to the next and not stopping to look up, sit down or wander. Before going outside with the other nurses I have noticed they all make sure to cover up appropriately for fear of being constantly stared at by men. A part of me feels there would be no difference if a woman was fully covered or naked in the bazaar for either way she would be one of few or the only woman outside.
When teaching a women’s health workshop at a high school with a focus on menses and puberty I was showered with a plethora of what may seem like ridiculous questions. “ If a woman has too much sex does that means she will run out of eggs and wont’ be able to have babies”, “ During my period boys say I’m too dirty to sit next too and will make them dirty is that true?” Teachers themselves posed many of these questions to me. It seems education is not sole the answer to empowering women in areas with a long history of tradition and culture which places women below men. Women must become aware of their own abilities and independence in an environment that encourages instead of degrades it and be willing to push the boundaries of these narrow mindsets.
I wonder…. Whether it is in Karachi, Lahore, Gilgit, Hunza or Sukkur why don’t the women just come out? Come out on their own accord and into the streets, into the bazaars, into the shops, onto buses next to the men (not behind) and into the mosques and stay. Women must take the space which is rightfully theirs, instead of scuttling away in fear of the male majority. Whether you are educated or not, the perception women have of themselves must change before that of men of women. If all the women of Pakistan come out in full force, I doubt the country will undertake honor killings by the mass for all the women disgracing the name of their families by going out and about as they wish. I doubt men will stare at a single woman walking through the bazaar if just as many women are walking around as men. It would give men less reason to think of the women as any different if they are seen in the same social and public spaces on a regular basis. I urge the women of Pakistan to shed their veils, their scarves, their fear and walk the streets the same as men, for public space was not created for only half of human society to live in and enjoy.