Why droves of Pakistani women are leaving their misogynistic country

Published: September 16, 2017

It has taken me a year to arrange for a one-way ticket to the United States, but I've thought of finding a new home for years.

When I started my first job, a cousin told me,

“All the noble reasons a woman might have for earning her own living don’t matter. Once you start spending time outside the boundary of your house, you are an outside woman.”

I never understood exactly what he meant by “an outside woman”, and by the time I’d grasped what he said, the moment had passed. I believed what he meant was that I was not as respectable as a housewife or someone who does housework and nothing else. An outside woman – a woman thought of like a house cat that becomes a stray.

Eleven years later, I find myself as one of the thousands of women who are derided for wanting something more than the life of a housewife or mother. So in order to pursue the kind of lives we want, we must literally become outsiders.

One such “outside woman” is my friend Yasmeen who had expatriated to Dubai. Not having seen her for a year, I expected more outward signs of opulence in her apartment. But as I explored her kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, I noticed that most of the cabinets were empty. The inventory of utensils and groceries made it obvious that the occupant wasn’t much into cooking and did not entertain many guests.

I was served tea in her living room. Again, only a handful of the belongings there were hers – the TV, some souvenirs and a picture of her niece. All the furniture belonged to the landlord. In the far corner of the room was a prayer mat and the Holy Quran, placed in the direction of the Qibla. Yasmeen was telling me about how she got her driver’s license and how she enjoyed her new Volkswagen. Back home, she was a Kia girl.

I realised it would soon be my turn to speak. She asked me about life back home in Karachi.

“Unfortunately, almost nothing has changed,” I said.

“Hina,” she said without missing a beat, “Why do you think I’m living here?”

I should note that Yasmeen is one of the smartest women I know. Four years ago, she had a thriving career in Karachi, yet she decided to move to Dubai. At the time, I thought it was just a career decision. But sitting in her apartment I realised it was more than that. In that one-bedroom apartment, her no-nonsense, minimalist personality was reflected in everything I’d seen. It wasn’t just her career; she was the architect of this new life.

On September 6th, I joined Yasmeen and hundreds of other young single Pakistani women who are moving overseas in pursuit of a better life. It has taken me a year to arrange for a one-way ticket to the United States, but I’ve thought of finding a new home for years.

Yasmeen is one of my three friends who moved overseas a few years ago. And as I landed in New York, three more are applying for visas for the Middle East and North America. In Pakistan, people tend to take a simplistic view of the life of young working women. Most of the people I tell of my move say something such as,

“Why are you leaving? You are educated, you have a career and you even hang out with men! What else do you need?”

I explain to them that I want to build a life of my own, which has proven next to impossible here. This only invites more questions and a tone of voice, which I can only describe as a combination of utter disbelief and disdain.

It is true that in comparison to millions of Pakistani women, I am quite privileged. Despite that, I don’t feel comfortable or even safe in my country, surrounded by my very own people. The reason is simple. Pakistani women are largely perceived as one of only two types:

1.Good women

As long as you follow the rules laid out by your family, community, society and others, you are “good”. It doesn’t matter if you are uneducated, poor, unhealthy and miserable; it’s more important to conform than build your own life.

2.Bad women

If you are educated or opinionated, or if you financially or socially support your family, you fall into this category. The moment you stop following the rules or challenge them, you need to be put down metaphorically and sometimes literally.

As Pakistan becomes more urbanised and more women get access to education and contribute to their families’ finances, there is a new subset that is becoming increasingly visible in the female urban population. These women come from middle and working-class families. They are often the first women in their families to get a university degree and have a career. There is one remarkable characteristic that defines them – the grit to build a life of their own, despite the scorn and isolation they face. They are focused and independent. They are not out necessarily to change the world, just their own lives.

It is unfortunate that in many cases, the financial contribution and educational prowess of these young women are celebrated, yet their social and political views are seen as unwanted and incongruous. When women start to assert themselves and claim their space intellectually and physically, it becomes a problem.

Women are moving abroad because the deeply embedded misogyny in our society is holding them back. It is not just about getting away from the parents who are constantly pushing them to get married. It is also not about finding an escape from the ubiquitous male gaze. (Okay maybe, it is partly about those things).

It is more about building a world for them where they feel accepted and free to design their own day-to-day lives. It is not about luxury; it is about choice. It is about building something new, reinventing themselves in the image they have envisioned.

On more than one occasion, I have been told by my sanctimonious aunts,

“There is barkat (abundance or auspiciousness) in a man’s earning, which women aren’t blessed with. No matter how much you earn, you will never be as prosperous as a man.”

As a journalist, since the beginning of my career, my supervisors and senior colleagues told me to avoid beats such as crime and courts. As a woman, it looks bad on you if you frequent police stations, talk to criminals and rub shoulder with rough crowds at the court. Firstly, they say you are not safe, and secondly, it raises questions about your character.

Returning late from work is also a questionable routine. It is never seen as a sign of diligence. It only means one thing – you are hanging out with (male) colleagues and having a time of your life at the expense of the society’s values and your family’s reputation and honour.

What you do outside your home does not only affect your reputation in society, it also affects your sisters’ prospects of getting married, your mother’s ability to attend religious gatherings (because you become a hot topic for gossip), and the men in your family have to answer questions such as,

“We spotted your daughter in a busy market. Don’t you think you have given her too much freedom?”

“She is still a kid. You should not let her spend so much time outside the house.”

“I know your family is a respectable one, but other people don’t know that. It reflects badly on you when your daughter is seen in a car with unrelated men.”

It is as much about the sense of worth as the sense of belonging.

“Maybe this is best for you because you don’t belong here,” my sister said, the day I applied for the visa.

“America! You definitely belong there,” said an old friend.

When a point comes in your life when even your loved ones start to feel that you don’t belong to the very place you lived your whole life and called home, and you don’t fit in with the very people you grew up with, what else are you supposed to do?

These women are some of the most brilliant minds our country has to offer and they are leaving in droves. Our society is not providing them the space to grow and live their lives, squandering its own future just to keep women in their place.

Hina Ali

Hina Ali

The author is a New York-based documentary filmmaker and a journalist. Her work focuses on human rights and politics. She is a 'Hubert H. Humphrey' and a 'Chevening SAJP' Fellow. She tweets as @alikhina (twitter.com/alikhina)

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

  • ab

    very typical. where is the responsibility part of being a women.? where you take pride in not cooking because i don’t feel like . Aren’t there life apart from being a journalist. so you should stay away from the people. no problems the country you are going do that. yes they have a meet and greet at fathers day, mothers day and christmas etc. when you will grow old what you give to the society, society will give you back so you are better of being there rather then here.good luck. just sayingRecommend

  • Qasim Cheema

    The thing is you and every woman is allowed to do what they want as long as it is within the purview of Islam (if u are a muslim that is), the same logic applies to men as well. It’s when the woman does unislamic things its a stain on the family but if a male does it then everyone is proud, this is the cultural logic destroying our society slowly.Recommend

  • Umar

    Pakistan unfortunately is a difficult place for women. Staring is the biggest problem. Wish Pakistan becomes the Pakistan of 60’s when it was relatively liberal. Devils like zia ul has made this land a living hell for most people.Recommend

  • Utsav Sharma

    damn psuedo-feminism has creeped into pakistan too, bad times are coming for pakistani men lolRecommend

  • Farhan

    Good luck HinaRecommend

  • Parvez

    Let me draw a picture of what I saw yesterday….trying to get out the parking area of a prominent hotel I was blocked by a line of big chauffeur driven cars, Mercedes, Land Cruisers etc and into each stepped an elegantly dressed middle aged lady. When I asked I was told there was banking convention and it had just got over…..all female bankers. All my close friends grown up daughters either run their own companies / businesses or work for corporations in positions of authority. These girls are also all happily married with children.
    So after reading your piece I thought that although you have made a valid point and what you say does exist here, it would be wrong to deny it, but is running from it the answer ….or is standing your ground, making yourself stronger to overcome these hurdles the answer.Recommend

  • Jim Corrigan

    More power to independent women.Recommend

  • Salman Raheel

    Not saying Pakistan is an ideal place for women, but truth be told, it’s not a walk in the park for women in the US or elsewhere in the so-called “developed world”. Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Maybe they want a little space away from the Maula Jatts.Recommend

  • wb

    Misogyny is not a part of Pakistan. But, Misogyny is a part of your culture!!!Recommend

  • Abdul moiz

    These “Brilliant” women can counter the criticism/judgments thrown at them, they can easily say “Hey mommy daddy .. please stop with this barkat lecture” , it is demonstrably false

  • Patwari

    As usual. the resident Banarsi Mulla, makes a poison dripping
    appearance. Right on schedule. Like clockwork.
    Well, when you are a paid cyber warrior for RSS and
    Shiv Sena at Rs.14.50 per comment in a Pak paper,
    then nothing else is much of a going concern, is it?

  • Patwari

    Excellent article. May you succeed in all your endeavors.
    As they say, Mashallah. May God keep you in the palm of
    his hands. May all opportunities be open for you.
    Your field of work journalism/documentary is far more easier
    to work and succeed in the USA. Wishing you the best.
    Just recently saw ‘Liar’s Dice’ with Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Wow!
    More or less a drama/documentary
    And another one ‘Sairat’…..about honor killing. Excellent.
    [both are on Netflix]Recommend

  • Patwari

    You should be worrying about sati, female infanticide,
    a Hindustani woman getting rape every 7 minutes.
    Your govt statistics show the ratio of about 700 women
    to every 1000 men. That is bleak. Bad karma.
    Not to mention that Bharat is the ‘Rape Capital of the
    With Modi Sarkar abandoning his wife Jashodeben
    Chimenlal, and setting a nasty example for the Hindians
    to follow,…you think that might be ‘just a tad misogynist?’Recommend

  • Patwari

    With all due respect, must disagree with part of your reasoning/opinion.
    The author of the blog is not ‘running away or abandoning’ her country
    or culture. Or loosing her ‘ethnic pride.’ She was in search and has found
    a better path a venue a place a country where her talents and artistic goals
    will be much better appreciated and easier to achieve. Then say in Pakistan.
    Her field is similar to Charmain Obaid Chinoy. Who did not get anywhere in Pak.
    Indeed, God’s benevolence, smiled on ALL your close friends’ grown up daughters.
    That they run their own businesses and have successful careers. How marvelous.
    Surely they had strong family support and HELP in finding the jobs or starting the
    businesses. Indeed, they were ALL born with a silver spoon. No disrespect here.
    Not every girl is that fortunate. They may have excellent qualifications and bio data.
    But no ‘sifarish…or ‘parche’ or let alone the financial means just to get a foot up.
    It is an open secret that to be a police SHO officer in DHA area Karachi, the going
    bribe rate is Rs. 1.5 million. This may be an extreme example but you get the drift.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You are entitled to your view point and I understand what you have said….I still hold that opportunity exists everywhere. In some places the struggle is hard and in others it’s easier …… but then facing a challenge and making good has its own fulfillment .Recommend

  • Utsav Sharma

    where is sati in 2017?Recommend

  • gp65

    For the first time I agree with you and I wish all the best to the author and other brave women like her.
    I also hope that highly successful Pakistani women politicians like Sherry Rehman, Hina Rabbai Khar, Marium Aurangzeb and even the fast rising Marum Nawaz, facilitate social reform to allow greater space for the ambitious and talented Pakistani women in Pakistan, so that they do not have to leave.Recommend

  • gp65

    You have enlightened views for Pakistani women. Why then spew venom for the Indian women? The government ratio does NOT show 700 women for 1000 men. It shows 958 women for 1000 men and it is better than the ratio thrown up by Pakistani census. Son preference is an unfortunate fact in this subcontinent and people ought to work on women’s empowerment.
    sati had been outlawed since independence of India and the last incident of Sati happened in 1981 when Roop Kanwar committed Sati.
    If you check rape statistics per 1000 population, India is not even among the top 20 countries. The reason Indian rapes are in the news is that Indian civil society and media have decided to raise awareness and fight this menace.
    Narendra Modi’s wedding was performed when he was still not 18 and without his consent. Recommend

  • Ahmar

    For every one Pakistani woman that leaves the country to earn money abroad, more than a hundred Pakistani men do the same. No man however has ever put a twist on it that they are doing so to escape the women in this country.

    Men and women from this country go abroad for earning because they can get a higher pay and better standard of living in terms of education, health and domestic comfort. Simple as that.

    However if you feel that women are leaving because they are “not allowed space to grow and live their lives” in this country, then I have some news for you. Being able to “return late from work, hanging out with (opposite gender) colleagues and having a time of your life” is not just denied to women. It is denied to men as well.

    Any culture that does not allow women the freedom to mingle with men, is by definition, also prohibiting men to mingle with women. You cannot create a society where

    A) Men are free to socialize with females
    B) Women are not allowed to socialize with males
    C) There is actual socialization going on between genders

    If A and B are true then C cannot be true.

    Similarly women who become independent also make men independent by definition.

    A) Women dependent on a man’s earnings = that man will have to earn for two = work longer hours and have less time to shape his own life.
    B) Women become independent of men = a man will only have to earn for himself = work less hours and have more time to shape his own life.

    So yeah. I am definitely all for women earning their own living so that men don’t have to work themselves to death for women.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Thanks for the kind remarks. They are appreciated.
    Womens’ Rights are forefront and center, with yours truly. Have
    always been.
    Must admit to being an ardent fan of Bollywood movies. A recent phenomenon. Due to Netflix.
    Actually very pleasantly surprised at some of the excellent product,
    like Piku, Parched, Dirty Picture with Vidya Balan, OKadhal Kanmani,
    and a very very funny one Total Siyapa with Yami Gautam/Ali Zafar.
    Not to mention an all time favorite Chennai Express.
    Sure, Bollywood makes ‘masala’ movies with the song/dance routines…and then they make Academy Award caliber ones like
    ‘Liars Dice’ and ‘I.D’ [ both with Geetaangeli Thapa.]Recommend

  • Patwari

    Where exactly do you see these venomous statements ‘against’
    Hindustani women? Could you enlighten? At least show where?
    Not so at all. If a rape statistic is referred, it simply educates or
    brings forth a sordid reality. There is no big fat ‘fact grinding’ book
    that conjures up these painful facts. Perhaps your sources are different.
    And what prompted the Bharati civil society to raise consciousness
    about domestic rapes? A plethora of excessive rapes. Everywhere.
    Would it not behoove the other nations in the top 20 category to do
    the same? Only Bharat had the “Eureka!” moment? No other nation?
    Come now, madam, you are perfectly aware that Hindustan has this
    social scourge. At least the Bharatis are confronting it. Full face.
    If Modi had an arranged marriage, does that entitle him to desert and
    abandon Jashodeben? Arranged marriages are a cultural norm in
    the sub continent. Men and women, in the past, simply did not mix or
    date. So why is Modi Sarkar an exception? Or do a lot of Bharati men
    abandon their wives?
    True, sati may not be practiced now. Unless it’s in a remote village.
    However, sati was never a given choice for the women. It was forced.
    A savage and brutal custom. Sorry. But it’s the truth.Recommend

  • gp65

    Of course Sati was a brutal custom. Who can deny it? That is why it was outlawed and there has not been a single case of sati in India since 1981.

    The issue about Modi’s marriage is not arranged marriage which is common across the subcontinent. Rather it was when he was a minor and was without his consent. It is also relevant that marriage was not consummated. The Indian law now recognizes the scourge of child marriage and how it disempowers the children involved – particularly the girls who also become mothers when they are not ready for it. Today the law in India allows a boy or girl who was married as a minor to get their marriage annulled if they petition within 2 years of becoming major. Had this law existed when Modi was young, surely the marriage would have been annulled. The percentage of child marriages in the last 10 years have nearly halved due to social outreach in addition to implementation of law but is still high at 24% for women and there is no grounds for complacence in this regard.

    As far as rape is concerned, please review the rape per 1000 statistic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics

    . By no means is India among the top 20. As someone who stands for woman’s empowerment, I hope you will agree with me that bringing the issue of rape front and center, so that the victim is not stigmatized and family of victim does not feel the need to hide these issues is important. That is what is sought to be achieved in India. In some of the countries with much higher rape per 1000 figures, this stigma may not exist and hence the social reform element of the debate maybe missing. Since most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, don’t you think more women might come forward in Pakistan if their families were not stigmatized by these rapes?
    Women of India and Pakistan have many challenges but they are a brave resilient lot and need support across the board to achieve their potential.
    I urge you to not view this issue from a nationality and religious perspective.Recommend

  • gp65

    Who is she being irresponsible to? Does she have a dependent whom she is not feeding? HAs she said that she likes to avoid people? Rather she is trying to find people who share her world view. What is wrong with that? If she finds a man that she loves and marries him, wonderful. If not and she wants to be a mother, she can adopt an orphan. If she does not want to do either, she can simply stay single with pride and dignity.Recommend

  • gp65

    Given your taste, some other movies that you may perhaps enjoy are Queen, Lunchbox, Dangal.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    Yes, America very nice country. It’s almost as if America isn’t even a third-world country! Because it does not seem to suffer from the same degree of socioeconomic turmoil that grips the Global South.

    I heard there is no misogyny and racism in America. Mashallah, that must be very nice.

    I myself am Pakistani minority person living in UK. Also very nice white white sort of country. I was very surprised to see that it is so developed, and has actually benefited from hundreds of years of colonial rule and neoliberal imperialism! Who would’ve thought? Very, very good!Recommend

  • Patwari

    Once you get your mind in gear, just maybe, you might get it.
    And enlightened the rest of us as to what is torturing you, your mind, stuff that has left you
    talking in riddles.
    You are still in an uproar over long dead colonialism? The British Raj? Mem Sahibs?
    Well, you can always take the next PIA flight to Gujranwala. And be happy among your
    brethren. Only 4 hours of ‘bijli’ a day. No steady reliable transport. No jobs unless you
    have a ‘sifarish’. And don’t get bitten by a Dengue mosquito. That would be bad bad juju.
    As an aside, hope you won’t visit ‘America’ because if you do all the misogynists, racists, white supremacists, Nazis and Alt Rights would be chasing you down the street. With
    baseball bats.Recommend

  • Patwari

    On it. Starting with Queen.Recommend

  • Xari Jalil

    Kia woman? Seriously? back home we say Karachiite.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Agreed. Due to your request. Certainly there are other factors,
    involved in the rape issue/crisis. As you correctly pointed out.
    So will refrain from generalization. And avoid info sources that
    may be dubious.Recommend

  • gp65

    Thank you. Appreciate your openness to my suggestion. Can I push my luck and suggest one thought experiment? Consider a girl called Nandita who is ambitious and wants to become a doctor. However, her family marries her off against her will when she is still 17. Instead of meekly accepting her fate, she runs away to pursue her dream and becomes a top notch globally renowned surgeon. Would you support her decision to run away or condemn her for it? What if it was not a young girl called Nandita but a young boy called Narendra who fled a marriage he never consented to in order to achieve his dream? I can understand why you hate him and I am not asking you to review your hatred. I am just asking you to review your stance on this one issue.Recommend

  • gp65

    I am surprised to see this comment coming from you, as you are a feminist.
    As far as US is concerned, it has many challenges and certainly the present US President is deliberately stroking divisiveness. Having said that, US is a good place for most women. Women are not judged for living alone or being single or childless. Women do not have to deal with ugly stares and worse in going to work/school as happens in Delhi (which is amongst the worst places for an ambitious Indian middle class/lower middle class woman without personalized means of transport) and I am sure there are cities in Pakistan where such things must be happening. There is pretty much no tolerance for sexist behavior in offices allowing most women to pursue their career as long as they wish.
    You qualified as a doctor from Pakistan isn’t it? In your classrooms, more than half the classroom would have consisted of women. How many continued on to actually practice medicine? Surely you know the factors that are responsible for the high drop out rate?Recommend

  • gp65

    Um, Kia is the car she used to use ‘back home’ as distinct from Volkswagen in the US.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Have a feeling this is not the Blogger Doctor from Rawalpindi.
    The grammar, the syntax, the composition is different.
    Either somebody with the same name, or a someone faking.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Your designated scenario is fascinating. And an answer to
    the stance is simple.
    If Modi ran away from home to escape an unwanted marriage and to pursue his dreams. To pick himself up by the bootstraps and make a better life better future.then that is fine. That will
    be supported by yours truly. That’s the extent. Period.
    What he developed into, over the course of the years, is an
    entirely different narrative. Obviously he formed his own perceptions, opinions, outlooks, beliefs. From influences he received or from the hard knocks of life. Shaped the current Modi. Who is not acceptable, non negotiable to ‘yours truly’.
    Very sorry to express this segment of the opinion to you, but you already knew this, as you pointed out in your comment.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I was under the impression you lived in Rawalpindi / Islamabad……and this comment is a departure from your normal style.Recommend

  • gp65

    Yes, that is all I asked. Since you believe he deliberately sanctioned brutal killing of hundreds of Muslims, it is quite natural for you to dislike him and I understand.
    As an aside, if I thought he had sanctioned a murder of hundreds of Muslims, I could not support him either, no matter how good his economic policies were for India. But that is something even thousands of Indians believe and so I am not going to try to change your mind on that.
    Once again appreciate your open mind on the one scenario I requested that you review. Have a great weekend.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    This is a sarcastic comment.

    Of course it is ludicrous to compare Pakistan with the United States, because the latter has had enormous politicoeconomic advantages over the last few centuries.

    I don’t speak for Pakistani women. I know patriarchy is real. I know the author has agency on the subject of women’s issues.

    But the comparison with America by a New York based writer, renders it a rancid neo-colonial flavour, and I’m having none of it. Sorry.Recommend

  • Patwari

    “I will respect the privacy of my patients. For their problems are
    not disclosed to me so the world may know.”
    That’s part of the Hippocratic Oath. If you can work on this part,
    diligently, the meaning will come to you, in time. Like Nirvana.
    You are the same ‘daktur’ who has his own interpretation
    of the Hippocratic Oath. And have used patients foibles and
    ignorance as a “schtick”, comic relief, in the past.Recommend

  • Gauravi Pal

    Delighted to hear that Pakistani women are doing so well in banking. Fortunately, India too has many women role models in this area.
    However, the lady in question had not limited herself to career success. Her concern was about constantly being judged for who she is. So her choice maybe legitimate for her.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Generally speaking, where in the world aren’t you judged for who you are ? You are judged for being female, for being dark complexioned, for being gay, for being born poor…..and the list goes on and on. My point, that I have made in my reply to @Patwari below is, standing your ground and fighting the good fight and winning is the hard way forward….but a very satisfying way. Yes, the author has chosen a way forward and for her it , as you say, may be the legitimate way for her and I wish her well.Recommend

  • Gauravi Pal

    Yes, agree with you that standing your ground and fighting the good fight can be very rewarding. In some cases though it can also drain you out. Depends on the personality. The same applies even to petty corruption, where you are asking for something legitimate and have the option of paying a bureaucrat to just do what he is supposed to do or maybe make multiple trips to get the task done, as it is their power to give you the run around. I choose never to pay a bribe. However, if there was an article trying to explain the compulsions of say a daily wager who would lose their daily wage each time they had to make a trip to the government office, I would understand their dilemma.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Absolutely agree with you on “depends on ones personality “. I’ll take it a bit further, it also depends on the values one is brought up with.
    I think we are on the same page on this point…..and in the example you have quoted I agree such experiences are draining experiences…..but someone must take a stand. After all for bad to flourish all it takes is that the good do nothing.Recommend