Behind Closed Doors
Gender inequality has an adverse effect socially, economically and politically on every society, and these cross-cutting effects impact us all. The extent and the examples are widely researched, published, and have begun to be implemented in different ways globally. In the global north, there’s a push for more participation of women in boardrooms of multinational companies, whilst in the global south, development sector organizations implement projects on gender mainstreaming, spreading awareness, and implementing institutional change. As much as I, a male, may read, analyze, and try to conceptualize the political economy issues within society which lead to the status quo, I haven’t been through the motions of living in a patriarchal society as a woman.
I moved back to Pakistan 3 years ago after living in Australia for 13 years. I knew the move was going to be tough; language, landscape, but most of all, navigating bureaucratic institutions and corrupted mindsets. I was prepared for it; I knew I had to be pragmatic, arrive with an open mind, take everything in, but learn to accept that most things wouldn’t be easy. Many who move from the north to the south do so with the ‘white man’s burden’ – the notion that one is obliged to assist or ‘save’ those in the south from their plight. I was cognisant of this, and came with the concerted mindset that the only one needing assistance was me. I understood that self-discovery didn’t have a pre-defined socio-economic strata or net calorie intake.
I struggled through the first 2 years – it wasn’t easy, and at times, completely draining. The last year or so however, I noticed myself growing both personally and professionally at an expedited pace. My friends who form the Pakistani diaspora that I was once part of, started asking me about the transition, and sought comfort and motivation from my experiences. I told them that if they wanted to, they should return back home. What I didn’t realize was that I was also advising women, not having had detailed conversations with women of my profile who had made the same transition.
In 2016 I met a woman through a mutual friend, and we developed a friendship. She struck me as very different from the average Pakistani girls that I had met. After some time I got to know her better, and I realized why. After completing high school, she had moved away from Pakistan for her education. After 5 years she returned to work in Pakistan, whilst her whole family had moved overseas. She was living alone as a single unmarried woman in her family house. Now, I had lived as a single unmarried man for months at a time in my house as well, but the cards weren’t stacked against me. The notion of an unmarried Pakistani man interacting with women is well understood. A man has to earn a living, and for that he must interact with the outside world, often with women, marital status notwithstanding. To get what he wants, he may even speak firmly or even harshly - that’s the ‘circle of life’. For an unmarried woman however, every interaction has a supposed intent and resulting implication. My friend told me that she couldn’t employ male house-help (drivers, gardeners, cleaners, etc.) as it was unbecoming of an unmarried lady. What happens behind closed doors between an unmarried man and a woman “is a matter of function”, however when the tables are turned, it becomes a matter of honor. Somehow, society takes collective action to cast verdicts on female honor, which keep her from realizing her own worth.
Not being allowed to employ men was just the tip of the iceberg. Even mundane external interactions, such as getting your electricity line fixed or getting some goods delivered to the house, had to be administered in the presence of a woman, otherwise a request for a woman to visit the house to provide the service, had to be extended. After 3 years of living here, the very notion of such a social custom hadn’t even crossed my mind.
My friend left Pakistan late last year. She had a good run, but Pakistan got to her. I compared myself to her. Her willpower and tenacity far exceeded mine. If I were female and had to go through the past 3 years again, in all likelihood I wouldn’t have thrown in the towel a while ago. Over the past 3 years, I had pigeon-holed all adversities and bottlenecks I had experienced as standard paradigms for all Pakistani diaspora members to encounter, as part of the reverse brain-drain process. What I failed to grasp, or even consider, was that the role of gender was multi-layered and affected a vast segment of one’s life. It wasn’t until one experiences it firsthand or hears about it from someone in detail, that one begins to understand the brevity of the situation.
After this experience, I started paying closer attention to the gender paradigm in Pakistan. One distinctive feature was that women who had made it to the top rungs of their profession, or who showed particular ambition, were extremely dominating individuals. Men of this nature would be considered bold, this characteristic perhaps even being a precursor to male upward mobility, but for women it was considered a failing. Then I thought to myself, if women had to encounter patriarchy at their household doorstep, imagine what they went through to get to where they were in their careers. It all added up.
I now use the experience of my friend as a cautionary tale to people who ask me about my experience in Pakistan. My struggles were genuine struggles, but they didn’t compare in the slightest to the struggles I would have had to go through, if I was going through the same process as a woman. Sometimes as TCKs, we box in cultures based on our own experiences, forgetting that there is such a thing as a gendered experience as well. I learnt that against my better judgement.