This post was originally published on Buzzfeed on January, 19th, 2016
-For Saida and Naila – Pakistan has produced some renowned female figures over its relatively short history. Malala Yousafzai and Fatima Jinnah being just a couple amongst many notable examples. But perhaps their success is all the more noted because it was achieved despite great institutional and cultural barriers.
My recent trip to Pakistan highlighted some great strides that have been made in terms of security and infrastructure. However, an issue that has refused to retreat, as far as I can remember, is a widespread and archaic sentiment that women have a fixed place in society, and any deviation from it is at odds with an all-too-secure status quo.
This issue is particularly close to my heart because both my Grandmother and Mother have spent a great deal of their lives overcoming social obstacles that have derided their every career achievement and belittled their stature in society. I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from their stories, and sharing some of it with you will allow me to highlight demons that are very much alive.
The birth of my Grandmother was marked with one gunshot to announce to Begum Sarain, Lucknow, that a girl had been born. Had she been male, the custom was 2 gunshots. She was the fourth of nine siblings but the first female. My Grandmother was lucky, in that her father was an educationalist – upon realising that there were not many educational opportunities for girls in the local area, he sought out a school quite far from the family home, to make sure little Saida had every opportunity her brothers had.
A phrase of her father’s that my Grandmother often narrates is that “the best jewelry a woman can have is a proper education.”
However, it was evident to her that she was the exception rather than the rule. Many of her friends were being taught recipes while she learned about the human skeleton.
If schooling was rare for girls, going to University was even rarer. But my Grandmother got in with a Scholarship, and was part of a very small female minority in the 1950 intake of St. George’s Medical College. There she met my Grandfather, Sarfraz, who made sacrifices that would help and shape Saida’s career for decades to come, and serve as an example of complete ease with her accomplishments, despite what society thought.
When the decision was taken for them to move to Karachi, Pakistan, after the Partition, Sarfraz knew that he would have limited opportunities in the new country, due to the highly specialised nature of his research work. But he had faith that Saida’s intelligence and grit would see them through into their new lives, no matter what was to come.
It was due to this faith that Saida was able to flourish into a renowned clinician, as well as founding and running a Hospital for 25 years. Many State officials, both foreign and domestic, used to seek her medical opinion. She matured into a respected figure that had a great deal of clout in a young Nation.
Her journey was largely a solitary one, as Sarfraz passed away at the age of 49 and the responsibility of their 3 daughters and her Hospital fell firmly on her shoulders. For a single mother to have such a prominent role in the city’s healthcare infrastructure, whilst looking after young daughters, was unheard of.
The respect I hold for my Grandmother, as she juggled family and work commitments, while battling attitudes which sought to see her at home carrying out a primarily domestic role, is enormous.
She clearly passed on her genes to my Mother, who now lectures at one of the world’s most renowned Universities, teaching Medicine in what is still a male-dominated profession.
Their journeys would have been inspirational had they even been achieved amidst complete equality. However, they weren’t.
The patriarchy is alive and well in Pakistan, and although amongst educated circles there is progress being made, inane cultural traits seem to shackle any movements towards progress.
Currently, only 20% of Pakistan’s workforce is female and women have a 40% lower literacy rate.
Moral duty and Pakistan’s needs dictate they unclip the wings and allow everyone to fly.
Make sure you add food for thought in the comment section.
If you loved it, share it!