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

Published: August 30, 2011
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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.