Are Pakistan’s “still unmarried” women the leftovers?

Published: April 15, 2016

A painting by Cynthia Angeles titled Grief

The best ones get taken first. The ones that are second choice get taken next. Those who are still not taken are considered ‘left overs’ – something must be lacking. No we are not talking about the kurtas on sale at a pret store, nor the shoes on the rack of an international shoe store. We are talking about women. Talented, smart, intelligent Pakistani women, each uniquely beautiful, irrespective of whether she is poised to be a home maker or a working woman. It is shameful that this is how society perceives them if they are still unmarried.

Being engaged or ‘in a relationship’ buys one a little time before the pressure begins to build up. But this is not just about the pressure on single women in Pakistan to get married. This is more about the blows to their self-esteem when the world seems like a market place (excuse the crass but apt analogy), and if no suitor has expressed a desire to marry you, you are a lesser being – the unwanted woman.

I got married young, so I never faced the unwanted stigma. But even then, one question used to spring up in conversations; shaadi se pehle kitnay rishtay aaye the? (How many proposals did you get before you got married?). Your worth, somehow, is associated with how many men wanted to make you their life partner, or how many mothers saw potential in you.

I saw friends who got married later – marrying at 23 or 24 was considered late. I saw their ordeal, and how their self-esteem was shattered every time potential suitors came to see them, but did not call back. It is unfair and leaves scars.

Sadly not much has changed; intelligent, enterprising and highly educated Pakistani women find themselves in a lurch. The late 20s, early 30s women who spent a lot of time in education, once done with their studies, find themselves in a tricky spot, especially if they studied abroad, and now have too much self-worth to allow themselves to be showcased. It is a shock to them that years later, social attitudes in Pakistan are still the same. Many of them go back abroad as the constant judgment that comes with being single is too much to take.

Every action has a reaction. The culture of measuring a woman by the number of proposals she receives has ignited a strong reaction within women; one that makes them sick to the idea of marriage. The trend is not a healthy effect, and we may call it a side-effect of women gaining too much independence, but decades of harming women’s self-esteem is the real cause.

A collective sentiment that may not be pronounced as yet, but is slowly and steadily growing among Pakistan’s urban and financially independent women are ‘why marry at all if one has to go through so much scrutiny, humiliation and even rejection?’

Which raises other valid questions like: Why should it be the woman who serves the tea trolley when the potential suitors and their families come to see her? Why should she face the rejection; and on what basis?

Asian cultures across the continent are jarringly similar. A recent advertisement in China aimed at empowering women has gone viral. It talks about how young single Chinese women are literally called the leftovers.

Pakistan may not have a specific word for it, but this is what is implied. And in the rishta (proposal) market, the most valuable currency is, of course, the physical aspect.

A multitude of TV ads perpetuate the same sickening thought process: Be thinner if you want to marry, be fairer if you want to marry, use bleach creams, and have flowing dead straight hair, look and dress a certain way if you want to marry.

If a man in his 30s is unmarried, nobody will blame his paunch, thinning gray hairline or his height, weight or complexion. He will be given the benefit of doubt and excuses will be made FOR him – he was busy studying because he is so brilliant; he was busy building a career because he is so responsible; he was waiting for his sisters to get married because he is so noble.

But for a woman, it seems how her outward appearance is all that she is worth. She must be young enough to bear children and good looking enough to appease the man. Come to urban Pakistan and in addition to this, she should ideally also have a degree from a decent university – a degree which, in all probability, she may not ever use.

Marriage is a very important milestone in a person’s life. It is a promise of a long term partnership and a more well-rounded life, and is something most men and women aim for. It is a commitment that needs adjustment, it’s not a fairy tale, but is worth the trouble. Having said that, no one deserves to be made to feel inferior for not having been chosen by suitors.

Today’s single Pakistani women are not necessarily leftovers – many of them simply don’t want a man who is shallow enough to choose or reject them, only on the basis of how they look. They feel they are better off being without such a man. So spare a woman the pity when you see her happening, single and in her 30s. She doesn’t need it.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets on @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • kamran

    I think is an issue faced by both men and women (obviously women got it worse) but even for men finding a suitable partner is harder and it does work with grading, top dudes with good money and families get the best girls and it goes all the way where some even settle with divorcees or widows (not saying its a bad thing though), I personally had one cousin who is dark and it was a struggle finding a rishta for him as he was rejected all the time by absolute average girls and families. Point is scrutiny has gone berserk for both Men and Women and as a society we need to take steps to counter this issue, but then again like any other problem we Pakistanis not able to find the solutions.Recommend

  • gp65

    I am as strong a feminist as they come. But I do not follow this “Today’s single Pakistani women are not necessarily leftovers – many of them simply don’t want a man who is shallow enough to choose or reject them,”

    Why is a man shallow for exercising his choice about whom he wants to marry?

    “Why should she face the rejection; and on what basis?”
    Not sure how arranged marriages work in Pakistan but do girls not reject boys ever? What did you mean when you said why should they face rejection? Would it be better for the girl if someone married a girl unwillingly because rejecting her would be shallow? Do the girls parents before they allow a boy to come see their daughter not ask about education and wealth of the boy?Recommend

  • Patch-Eye

    It is actually very one sided? Most of the time, the guys family is the one that comes over first and in one meeting where the girl probably serves tea for the most part and is dressed a certain way, the guy decides to reject her? Based on what? It is very discouraging the way it is handled, a single meeting isn’t enough to decide someone’s worth. As a Pakistani in her late 20s I can relate to and agree wholeheartedly with OP

    This doesn’t say that a girl never rejects a guy, but the girl’s side visiting the guy usually happens later. At least there after a few meetings there can be a reason for rejection.Recommend

  • Uncle Tom

    How can you tell people what they can or cannot comment on? Everyone has a right to an opinion, you may disagree with them of course but you cant do anything about their opinion, besides I was clearly trolling. Getting all upset doesn’t help you cause, if you had one that is. In fact, if anything it proves that I might be on to something and perhaps even ET’s readers could use some therapy. How about a group hug?Recommend

  • Abdullah Ahmad

    Nobody said the girl cannot reject the guy on the first meeting either.
    Ive seen it happen multiple times.Recommend

  • Ashraf

    That’s why our great religion allows a man to marry with 4 women at a time, it is only the graceful solution of this “leftover” glaring problemRecommend

  • Madeeha Khan

    what kind of cancer you had
    …..and please dont use this “rejection” word……life is more beyond this toxic wordRecommend

  • Sana Charania

    you should consider counsellingRecommend

  • X

    Totally agree. It is not shallow to exercise your right to marry someone who you feel attracted to/have similar interests/ education level/ background etc whatever someone’s preference may be. Both have this right to scrutinise and “reject” each other or get to know each other more. The implication in this article that women have such low criteria that they would be willing to marry anyone who doesn’t reject them is so so wrong. Recommend

  • Tahira

    I do not see the need to bring religion into this. The issues are largely cultural and emerging from a society that has messed up itself when it comes to true relationships and unity.Recommend