Great grades mean nothing if you don’t have a chaperone – or a Y chromosome

Published: August 30, 2011

Making good grads is not enough for women in Pakistan

Meet Maheen*: a hardworking final year A’ Level student. By hardworking, I mean that when Maheen received a B in Chemistry, having lost out by a mark, she stayed back in the library for hours on end every day for three weeks, to finally get an A in the finals.

It’s that kind of hard work that translated into 14 As in her O’ Levels, seven of which were A*. Naturally, she had straight As in her AS Levels. She is the kind of girl that you assume will apply to the best colleges. But Maheen is not calling the shots here. Her parents are, and they are adamant that she stay put in Karachi.

Where to apply for university is usually based on grades, entrance tests, essays and financial means. But for some families in Pakistan, it’s not the fee structure that affects them: it’s social constraints that govern where their children will graduate from. And more often than not, it’s the girls that get the raw end of the deal.

For Maheen, it’s specifically what she calls the issue of the ‘mehram’ (a chaperone who is a blood relative). “If I had relatives living abroad I think my parents would allow me to go,” she said. “But even if I got a scholarship to, say, Cambridge, my parents wouldn’t let me go unless I had an aunt or uncle living nearby.”

Maheen is quick, however, to make a distinction between ‘conservative’ and ‘religious’ reasons.

“Most families say no because of family traditions and not because it is part of religious teachings, or something along those lines.”

Family tradition is what stalled her good friend Ayesha’s* dreams. Now studying at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, her time at Lyceum was spent having to deal with almost all of her peers going abroad or elsewhere in Pakistan for higher education. As Maheen recalls, Ayesha was “very, very upset”.

Then, of course, there is no possible bigger social constraint than the ‘M’ word. In A’ Level student Raheel’s* family it is pretty common to send boys to university, whether within Pakistan or abroad.

But the girls?

“Well, they tend to get married after 18,” he uncomfortably replied. “There was this one Canadian cousin of mine who rebelled and went to university, but then again, she was Canadian,” he added.

Marriage  is the kind of constraint that can completely alter your university plans; in my school alone, two girls dropped out after their first year of A’ Levels to get married, with another due to be married as soon as she finishes her studies. But even for girls whose parents agree to send them to university, marriage is always on the cards. Zara*, a final year A’ Levels student, has been told by her mother that she may only apply to IBA or IBM, so that she can stay in Karachi in the event of marriage.

Such social constraints can run deep, even in success stories. Anam* is a final year A’ Level student who plans to apply to the Aga Khan University and pre-med schools in the US. Part of her freedom to choose comes from her mother, who was one of the first women in her family to go to the UK for further education. Even so, “my nana was completely supportive of her, but certain relatives actually visited to tell him he was making a huge mistake”, said Anam.

Let it be clear: Karachi has some excellent universities to offer. It’s just, what is it about parents wanting their girls to stay in their home city?

In a recent interview for Newsweek Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami member Samia Raheel Qazi highlighted that more all-women colleges should be set up as Pakistani parents are reluctant to send their girls to mixed universities.

Fair enough, but the girls mentioned here all attended or are attending co-ed schools already. If the proposed women’s colleges are outside Karachi, would these parents let them go?

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom.  Four days ago, a beaming Maheen came running down the school corridor to hug me. After endless convincing, her parents have allowed her to apply to the Lahore University of Management Sciences, provided she completes an ‘allima’ (scholar) course alongside. For Maheen, who has studied sciences all her life, even the simple act of applying to one of Pakistan’s best humanities programmes is the chance to learn something completely new. “I keep looking over all the courses and electives they offer, it all just sounds so intellectual and fun!” she said. Here’s to hoping she gets what any prospective student wants: the college of their choice, and not their parents.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

Meiryum Ali

Meiryum Ali

A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".

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

  • Naveed (UC Berkeley)

    Interesting article. There are quite a few exceptions, but yes generally Pakistani parents don’t take the education of their daughters very seriously (this does, in a lot of cases, come back to haunt them though, especially in financial matters). I would fault the girls themselves too. While they are hardworking, they also give far too much importance to getting married and starting a family early. What with society looking on, they say, they can’t possibly have their first child at (gasp) 26! The horror!
    P.S: There are no “pre-med schools” in the U.S. Noob. ;)
    – Naveed (Berkeley ’14)Recommend

  • Meiryum

    Thankyou for the comments!
    Sorry, what I meant was she wants to major in biology for her undergrad, and then apply to med school. Thanks for pointing it out.Recommend

  • http://www, Ovais

    If Zoya wasnt enough the young educationalist had to step up. Well this article isn’t that bad but maybe i will be critical. Firstly when there is no education for women as persay this is not a big issue weather an elite can go abroad or not. Beta see the ground reality with a literacy rate of less then 40 percent with less enrollment and subsequent sidelining of HEC in the recent years.And we reap rewards of the democratic government that has longed for women rights. How do you expect a common man to spend 16 lac on lums giki etc .HEC was hope but now the state it is in is quite dis satisfactory. Maybe your article should have encompassed the whole spectrum.Recommend

  • Salman

    I completely agree with you Meiryum, but the proportion of society you’re talking about here is only about 1% of the entire country (at the most). The remaining 99% of society don’t send girls to school, and when they do, almost never as high as ‘A’ Levels. I condemn the way that even the alleged educated elite treat the education of women – as you have pointed out quite vividly here. However, at least they receive an education, a degree, a possible career; even if it is in a sexist, chauvinist way. Every little counts.
    I’d actually love to read a future post about the education provided to girls in the majority of Pakistan, not just the upper echelons of society in our country.

  • Naveed

    @Salman: So true. I think that the majority of Pakistanis only send their daughters to school for about the first 4-5 grades. And then there’s another significant minority that disallows their daughters from leaving the house altogether.
    Pakistan is a cruel land.
    – NaveedRecommend

  • Meiryum

    Thankyou for the feedback. Salman, I agree this is “only about 1% of the entire country”. My point with this article was to show how even parents within that 1 % who do have the resources to pay for higher education choose not to, even when their girls have excellent academic records (such as the girls mentioned here). Every little bit counts, but girls like Maheen deserve more. Ovais said, “How do you expect a common man to spend 16 lac on lums giki etc”. Again, even if some girls won scholarships through the Pakistan government or the institutions themselves, parents have issues sending their daughters away from home (Karachi) because it’s simply not the done thing. I just thought it was slightly worrying that the main issue wasn’t financial, but social.Recommend

  • khan

    Well many parents want their children to get higher education but prefer they stay in their home city because of obvious reasonsRecommend

  • The Forbidden Fruit

    Yea but not everyone! I took the stand in my family to prefer studies over marriage.. my parents supported me wholeheartedly. I’m also STRICTLY against dowry, for which parents have to save millions, I spent all of that on my education – NO dowry at all. Again, my parents supported my stance even having had to go against the whole society for that.
    That “aalima” condition is kinda funny though. A certificate does not make one more pure does it?Recommend

  • Omair Shakil

    A great mind is a great mind. Gender should have nothing to do with it. Sorry girls, but unfortunately you’re living in a patriarchal society. My sympathies.Recommend

  • Saad Durrani

    For the first time, a real issue. Kudos!Recommend

  • Ayman

    I do feel the sentiments of the writer and agree with her partially. But at the same time, we should also keep the norms of our society in mind. Nobody wants to live alone for a lifetime, thus, there’s a right time for everything. i think wot the writer here is trying to say is, there should be a blanket of balance in our society for educating and marrying girls at the right time in the right manner.Recommend

  • http://www, Ovais

    the main issue is financial and i know it. I know many cases on the other side who have been able to travel to study by their family. You should understand a fathers point of view as well, lack of security and the current situation on the whole worries them. And as a society we are overprotective of women. I don’t think the nature of this blog focusing on the smaller spectrum is justified.

    I would justify a parents concern when they themselves reside in a big city about a girl moving to other city. As a protective parent he would prefer his daughter to be near her so i guess its not something that the society needs to worry about right now as per say. The problem is Parents not allowing education and the current literacy rate of Pakistan.

    I have always felt the spectrum u deal with to be limited and confined and opinionated by your lack of experiences. I think its too early for you to get exposure in front of staunch critics like me .Recommend

  • Nadeem Ahmed

    Thanks Meiryum for an interesting article..Recommend


    your article is great, good enough. appreciate that but what about the students who studied in govt schools???? is your message delivering to them? do they know whats’s A LEVEL? OR O level? why don’t we talk about a common man? why don’t we approach masses? are these English newspapers only for the higher class??????????? you are talking about UMT, why don;t about an institution in which a common man used to study? and he is bright but no exposure for him? why do we give exposure to those things, which are already on higher standard??? that’s why we are backward, this is the secret of west, they talk about a common man, a man or women of a street and that’s why they are progressive.Recommend

  • P

    Your bio says you’re an A-levels student. Come into the university life and you will see that some of your views mentioned here are quite wrong.Recommend

  • Sani

    Judging a person by grades is the stupidest thing to do. None of these high school high graders have done nothing remarkable ever. Recommend

  • AS

    @ Forbidden Fruit…Way to go gurl….I got married last year too and I didnot take anyyyy DOWRY….at all….It’ is completely a cultural tradition and is not related to religion.

    Moreover as ppl have mentioned above, I believe that our ppl as a whole have become open-minded with broader vision and IT IS ONLY FINANCIAL ISSUES which restrain parents from making such decisions.I am the eldest of 3 daughters and one sone of my parents and it was only I who was sent abroad to pursue my specialization in medicine.My only brother who is a LUMS grad wasnt even sent abroad for his Masters cuz my parents felt that it was more important for their Doctor daughter to get a specialization degree abroad than him.And by the time I was done with my studyign they had no money left.So I believe it is mainly financial issues, otherwise who wudnt send their kids on a scholarship IF EVER the Pak Govt pays for themRecommend

  • :)

    The last paragraph made me smile. I was a pre-med student who somehow got to convince her parents to let her go to LUMS and well, social sciences. Though part of the reason was that they didn’t want me to go to Karachi (and AKU) since I am originally from Lahore. The experience however was amazing and I count my blessings for it everyday. I hope Maheen* gets the admission and can live through the same. Good article. Recommend

  • :)

    and @Ovais, i understand you calling the author young and perhaps inexperienced with the realities of life because of her age…but calling yourself a staunch critic – seriously? Wisdom does not necessarily come with age or experience. She may be young but instead of encouraging her introspection you stop to boast about your own self! A Little modesty would help you sir. Recommend

  • http://www, Ovais

    @the smiley face … I meant I love to do criticism and that’s why i am harsh on her . I don’t think there is any personification in that .Recommend

  • Hikmatyar Wali

    Meiryum (hip spelling :P)

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I do remember that back when I was in school, some of the most talented girls in our class (generally top 10 students across the school) never got a chance to get a proper higher education (abroad or otherwise) despite their considerable talent. Some of them got married while in A Levels, while others got married soon thereafter.

    What pains me so much about this situation is that as a nation we are starved for talent, particularly insofar as highly-skilled labor is concerned. That makes it all the more important that each potential superstar is given the chance to make the most of their drive and intellect. Unfortunately for us, we end up losing 50% of our best talent by default due to ‘culture’ – what’s more – the buck doesn’t entirely stop with the girls. Some hugely talented boys are stopped from going abroad simply because parents fear moral corruption.

    Pakistan – we live like princes even as we continue to fall every day. Recommend

  • Iftikhar Nadeem

    I read this rather interesting blog and the comments since I had a lot of free time for a few days now. Also, it’s timimg is so relevent since schools in many countries are just opening up after summer vacation. As a matter of fact, I’m here at University of Toronto to support my daughter who has traveled from Saudi Arabia to join the UofT. My daughter grew up in Saudi Arabia which is far more conservative society than Pakistan. But we got more discouragement from Pakistan to send her abroad for higher studies than the Kingdom. My guess is that it was because of less educated and less enlightended folks (friedns and relatives) in Pakistan than people around here where we live now (Dhahran, KSA). Over here we were able to spot the global trends and importance of preparing our children for global challemges that necesstate global quality education. As parents, we treated our two daughters and a son equal for education rights. By the way, we planned long ago and saved for years to support their education and didn’t buy any plots in DHA since we believed our best bet is investment in our children education. No regrets! By the way, it’s a great blog and debate that followed. Good job M.Recommend

  • MK

    good job with the article..i’ve actually seen this happen a lot.however, i would say times are definitely changing – it may be say only 0.02% of the 1% who belongs to this A-Level/abroad education category but people are becoming moreopen to sending their daughters abroad or even say out of city , esp to LUMS/IBA for higher studies. Also, opportunities like the Fulbright, Chevening, Rhodes and HEC scholarships make things easier on the parents so they can’t use the financial resources reason then! Cheers –Recommend

  • Maheen Surya

    Wow, my story exeactly! and these last few days only thought in my mind:
    After all my hard work, achieving grades every student dreams about i am Seriously left with only IBA as my choice -__-Recommend

  • Maheen Surya

    Btw great title, great blog!Recommend

  • jai

    Congratulations to the girls. It really is a shame that a girl may not be able to realize her potential due to social constraints. We have a similar environment in India but fast changing. In my own family my sister was much more driven, hardworking than me so my father got her to do masters while i didn’t. She’s happily married with children and makes more money than i do. Infact she’s kinda a superwoman who balances work and family life. I’m happy for her. She’s worked hard for it. Why would i grudge a deserving person getting their worth. I think in our conservative societies of India and Pakistan women work extra hard to prove themselves given half a chance so that potential should be utilized. What is the point of wasting half a country’s workforce- the women.Recommend

  • Abdullah

    Reality… basically issue exist but nowadays the changing external issue are also a reason for parents not letting kid move apart…. whereas due to religious and cultural aspects in our society girls do have disadvantage of not letting their dreams to achieve career they want.Recommend

  • A.

    If you are a hardworking student, then just staying in Pakistan and studying here, should not stop you from succeeding in life. Please don’t think that just by going abroad you can prove your self /succeed in life/ get a good education or use your skills. We have to let go of this belief and move on. However good article!Recommend

  • Hikmatyar Wali


    That is a simplistic way of looking at it. There are quite a few fields of study that are either simply not available in Pakistan, or there is limited access to it. Other fields are taught at a lower level of sophistication than you would see in the West. If you are indeed a talented, driven student, you should see to it that you give yourself the best shot for realizing your talents and following your interests.

    Unfortunately, insofar as Pakistan is concerned – there are really only 2 really world-class institutions – LUMS and AKU – and even these two institutions cover a pretty narrow range of subjects that one can specialize in. The standard at the rest of the institutions is simply not up to scratch given the trends in the broader world today.

    Its one thing to be all patriotic about Pakistan, and its another thing altogether to let patriotism cloud your good judgement.Recommend

  • Usman Mahmood

    Nice article. But I really don’t get the point of girls marrying during or right after A Levels !! :-\
    Never heard anything like it.Recommend

  • Excalibur

    I’ve noticed this ‘social conservatism’ even with liberal, privileged families who send their kids to the American and Grammar schools. Girls are able to attend elite colleges in the US/UK only if a sibling will accompany them, or they’re able to stay with a relative abroad. But what’s interesting is that looking at these kids you wouldn’t think that they were from ‘conservative’ families. They party with alcohol, wear skirts and tube tops, feel more comfortable speaking in (fluent) English, and seem to have plenty of friends of the opposite sex – surely not without their parents’ knowledge. But when it comes to sending the girl to college abroad alone, the parents suddenly put their foot down. What gives?Recommend

  • uzma

    unfourtunately our country has only 3 world class institutions that is “AKU
    for medicine,LUMS for business and GIKI for engineering and these three are quite expensive so girls usually get sidelined …i mean every man with average income wants his son to be a giki graduate engineer or lums graduate ….and for that dream he send his son to the bestest academy …and when it comes to his daughter he decides to send her to univeristies with lesser fee structures…shame …Recommend

  • .Sidra

    Make education a basic RIGHT for both men and women in Pakistan!!!!!Recommend