Farah Mudabbir, a housewife and a mommy who lives in Scotland, shares her experience of living abroad in the following words, “Life is much more relaxed here. I come home late at night and sometimes by myself. My home is at almost 20-min-long walk from the station and I don’t feel scared while coming back home. I sold so much household stuff online and I had people coming over at my place for the inspection of the items. Not once, I had doubts in my mind.”
The battles that women in Pakistan have to fight every day are exhausting. In our country, as soon as we, women, step outside our houses, we are on a defensive mode. We take a long piece of shawl or scarf to wrap ourselves before we walk on the unfriendly streets of our country. In case, we decide to let our dresses flaunt, we are met with the sleazy stares of men (it doesn't matter where we are and with whom we are; men don't spare us). Surprisingly, we get the taste of the kind of freedom that we search for at home in places miles away from home.
On the UAE-Turkey flight, I was seated next to a Sri Lanka-born Australian. We started talking and when I mentioned that I was from Pakistan, he asked a few peculiar questions. “Can you travel solo?” Before I could respond, he gave me the context of this seemingly unusual question. One of his classmates was from Lahore, Pakistan, and according to him she faced a lot of mobility issues in the country. She couldn’t go anywhere – her parents had set a curfew, etc. I don’t remember what I told him, but our conversation became the starting point of the following research I carried out over a period of a year. The question in mind was simple: what it is like for a girl to travel solo?
I met Ayesha S – a design manager at a music start-up – at a café (it was pre-Covid-19 days) for a quick chat. As soon as I settled myself, I apologised for my late arrival as I couldn’t get a cab. She gave an encouraging smile, “We have some amazing problems here.” Ayesha had recently returned from a design expo held in Dubai and she spoke about her time abroad with a hint of concern. “We are missing out on a lot of things without even realising it. Ever since the Aurat March, I have come across tens of men who say that ‘women’ are making a big deal of virtually nothing. It gets too difficult to explain the void that is created in our country because of the centuries-old way of thinking. If you have a look at other countries, you’d see how women easily set up their stalls on the roadside. Women there can open a clothing store or rent a small kiosk near the Metro station. Here, it is only men.”
With frustration, she lamented, “I’ll tell you a funny incident that happened many years back. My cousins were visiting us from Denmark. One of them asked me if I would go for shopping. I asked whether we were going to the mall or the shops nearby, so that I could dress up accordingly. I can’t tell you the look of shock she had on her face. She had no idea that we could have two options for the same place.”
Sheba Sultan, a teacher at a private university recalls her time in London, England. “I really like the sense of freedom and security. You can walk outside alone and wear whatever you want. You can also look ‘ridiculous’ if you want to. For example, if your hair is messy or if you are not wearing makeup, no one would look at you. You can go to a shopping mall if you want. Here, there is so much pressure on you. You have to dress up for shopping – which is like a casual activity that you do. I have seen people wearing party dresses just to go to a mall.” While elaborating on the sense of freedom, Sheba adds, “In our country, women are ‘allowed’ to do things. Parents will give ‘permission’ to their daughter to take admission in a university, but will not ‘allow’ them to hang out with her friends after university hours. The concept of a girl going out of her house to a nearby ice cream shop is so alien here.” Sheba has lived in England for her studies and that experience shaped her personality to a great extent. “When you’re travelling abroad – especially solo – you learn how to be independent. From getting your luggage at the airport to living on your own can be a great experience. I have learnt to take care of myself; to do laundry; and to cook for myself. All these experiences also make you a lot more humble. Here, most of us have the habit of getting things done – we don’t lift our finger to do the bare minimum. But, when you’re living alone away from home, you see some change in your personality.” Sheba also mentioned a few habits that she saw in people abroad. “Many people were careful about recycling. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that kind of carefulness here in Pakistan,” she illuminates.
Iffat Irfan, a school teacher at a private school, laughed while admitting that the one thing she loved in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was the fact that she could wear jewellery without fear. “It is so sad to accept that in our country we are living in constant state of fear. Wearing a piece of jewellery shouldn't be a big of deal. I remember the time when my sister was robbed many years back. She lost the earrings that our elder sister had given her for her wedding. They hold a sentimental value for her and they were gone in a blink of an eye. Since then, I have always been careful when going out.”
Iffat, who has lived in Malaysia for over a year with her husband, informs that the life in a foreign world is not always rosy and there are times when you miss your family a lot, “You go out of your apartment and you don’t see a familiar face. You are all alone at your home on Eid and other festivals. I feel that we are at a constant battle. We want to go back home, but we don’t want to leave behind the ‘luxuries’ of our temporary abode has to offer. One of these luxuries include taking out your mobile phone on roads or when you’re stuck in the traffic without the fear of being robbed.”
She also expresses that the reason many people can’t wait to leave the country and settle abroad is that they don’t have the basic facilities at home. “I didn’t have to worry about load-shedding, for example. These feelings of irritation that we feel all the time in our country can easily go away if we have the basics fixed.”
Dr Ayesha Siddiqui works at a public hospital in Karachi. “There are several neighbourhoods in New York where you can’t go alone. I am mentioning this to give an idea that all countries are dealing with street crimes and that you have to exercise caution when you’re out of your home,” tells Ayesha, who went to NYC as a teen. “I think I have seen a lot of things at a very young age. NYC was all about survival. I saw how your relatives who live abroad act when you’re in the same country. How they don’t come to your help. I don’t like living there, but, yes, there is no denying that the country was less suffocating than Pakistan. I worked part-time and I noticed one thing that there you can do whatever you want to. That liberty gives you much-needed financial independence, which you cannot get here. Over here, it’s only about jobs that you can’t do because ‘people will talk’,” adds Ayesha.
Syed Ommer Amer, the CEO at Daastan, a publishing company, sheds light on the issue with his experience, “I have always felt that Pakistani environment is way too suffocating, especially for women. Last year, when I went to Vietnam, it was quite late at night but I could see mothers running on the roadside playing with their toddlers, little girls bicycling with their father, university students sitting and talking. The passers-by were not staring at them. It was normal. Everyone felt safe. Thailand and the streets of Bangkok were somewhat similar. Nobody ogles at you or follows you – which could make you feel uncomfortable. In Pakistan, even when I am walking with my sister on the road, I can feel the unwanted stares. Couples can't even hold hands. You would never know when a few rowdy boys on motorcycle would inappropriately touch your significant other and run away laughing. I wonder what kind of toxic society is this.”
Laraib Fatima, a housewife, reminisced her time abroad, “I went to Sri Lanka for a short trip and I left my heart there. Everything was so accessible. The country is not a developed one, and yet, there was some sense of freedom. At night, I would go for a walk with my husband. We’d hold hands and talk. I built some nice memories. Here, I am conscious of all the stares. Moreover, it was also painful to see the huge crowd of tourists at these places. Pakistan has so much to offer in terms of tourism but it’s not safe.”
Humza Siddiqi, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences informs, “Being raised by a single mom, I had utmost respect for single women working and studying with me. I was always respectful, but one thing I remember that I did not do was call people/friends/co-workers out, who regularly engaged in cat calling, insulting or stereotyping women. I would always keep them at an arms distance, but never told them that they were wrong in doing so. My female colleagues were told on their faces that only ‘men’ would work and ‘All you have to do is to make roti’. This preferential treatment helped me learn more than my female peers, build my CV and get accepted into a strong teaching programme in the US. Coming to the US, on the first day of orientation I realised that three important positions – supervisor, chair of department, and the CEO of the hospital, were held by women. After working with them, I soon realised that everybody was given a level playing field. If you wanted to excel, you just had to work harder than others, you can’t snatch opportunities from others.”
Dr Humza is now a father of an adorable girl. He says, “Now that I have a daughter, I would hate for her to be treated less than others, be cat called, or be deprived of anything that she wants. Now, I also openly call out inappropriate behaviour. Had I stayed in Pakistan, I would not have had this mentality because when people don’t get exposed to diversity, it is hard to break those shackles. This is why we are lagging behind while countries that embrace diversity are light years ahead in every aspect.”