ISLAMABAD—The women of Pakistan are very diverse, from the clothes they wear, to the kind of home they live in—mud, marble, or brick—to their level of education. Many are in the midst of navigating their way through a transition in roles; from exclusively wife and mother to persons able to work and contribute more broadly to society.
Currently 45–50 percent of females in Pakistan are literate, compared to 70 percent of males. While more opportunities exist now for girls in Pakistan than a generation ago, it is still very hard for the average woman to make her life alone without a husband.
The following are snapshots from the lives of three Pakistani women who live in and around cities in Punjab Province. Their stories show the strengths and fears of Pakistani women, and the pressures they face.
Razia Beebee, 72
Razia, now widowed and living in a town in Punjab, was born and raised in a Punjab village where she was first married at age 11. After her first husband divorced her at age 19 to marry another woman, Razia was forced to marry again at the age of 21 because as a young, attractive girl, she was harassed and taunted by men in her community.
She wanted to become a doctor but that dream never came true because she did not have enough emotional or financial support from her family. Instead, she trained and became the most well-known and highly paid midwife in her area.
She gave birth to three daughters and supported her second husband when he became too ill to work. She took in seven orphans and saw three of them grow to become accomplished adults, the other four died in childhood.
Razia never charged poor people for her midwifery services, and paid the tuition for children and young adults in her family and community to attend school.
She has worked since age 25. For a Pakistani, especially with her level of education, she has made a substantial living. In addition to midwifery, she has bought and sold properties, using some of her hard-earned income to build houses for many of her family members.
She said her favorite thing about her life is the fact that she can help the poor, and especially women, with their health needs. She has also loved being able to send all the children she could to school, so that they could make something of their lives and become self-reliant.
She said it is hard for women in Pakistani society to be without husbands or male figures in their households.
In her work, she felt that men did not take her seriously, and so she developed a hard exterior, although she said she really has a very soft heart. She said that she had learned to act like a man in order to survive after her husband got sick and even more so after his death 15 years ago. “I always had to be on my guard so men would not try to take financial advantage of me because they saw me as a passive lady ready to be fooled into some deal.”
She said she would like to see her granddaughters “treated as equals with boys, especially in the area of education and careers. I would like to see women be independent financially.” She said she has seen many women become victims of circumstance because they feel powerless and don’t have the ability to support themselves.
Bukthmeena Beebee, 33
Bukthmeena grew up in a village in northern Pakistan where she was married at the age of 16. She and her husband moved to a town north of Islamabad where they had three daughters and three sons. Two of Bukthmeena’s daughters are married, while her youngest daughter and all her sons live at home. Her husband is a manual worker and did many years of heavy labor, digging, planting, and in construction, until he had a heart attack and had to do less physically demanding jobs. Her eldest son who is 16, is employed by people who live near her. She herself does light cooking and cleaning for a women who lives near her. The woman often helps Bukthmeena’s family when their finances are tight.
Her family keeps chickens for eggs and goats for milk, and also sells the young goats to make some extra cash. Their house, which has taken four years to build at this point, has two rooms. Her unmarried daughter helps with household chores and the boys help with the animal chores.
She says the best thing about her life has been her husband; his support, and the caring that he shows when she is ill. She said he works hard for the family.
She says the hardest thing for her about being a woman [and being poor], is not being able to help her children when they are sick. Is it because she cannot earn money to pay the doctor? There have been many times when one of them was sick and the family could not afford the doctor’s fee or medicine. “All I could do was worry and pray that they would get better.” Her family has also had desperate times when they would have to sell some of their bedding, sheets, quilts, blankets, and mattresses, to pay for medical care.
When asked about her hopes for her daughters she says, she always wanted her daughters get a good education, but the oldest two had no interest, and the family does not have the means to send the youngest. Now Bukthmeena places her hopes in her granddaughter who is 6. “She is very smart and my wish is for her to study and become a workingwoman so she can have a better life and help her family.”
Her youngest daughter said she would like to study to become a doctor but does not have time because she is needed to help out at home with cooking and cleaning.
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