“To get me where I am today, a well-settled Civil Engineer with a roof overhead and a firm posture, life took me through many, many turns, but that’s just how life is. However, for me, these turns were unfairly sharp, painfully roughing out my edges. They questioned my abilities, criticized without basis, and went as far as to make the assumption that I would not last a year in the field.
And yet, here I am with a long service award from National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK), my posture still firm.
Even so, in my forty-six years’ experience from life, I noticed that these turns angled from one specific origin: my womanhood, my femininity. It has always ensured that underestimating assumptions would brand my back.
‘Would you be able to go out in the field?’
‘Should I give you this task? I don’t think you would be able to stay late.’
Of course, I can! Just give me a chance to show you!
Thankfully, by Allah’s grace, I was blessed with a motivating family; my father, Allah rest his soul, encouraged me to do what I wanted while my sister helped me progress in both studies and life. Mathematics, unfortunately, was an exception, but the hurdles had never stopped me. The solid foundation behind me became my first step towards my goal.
The second step arrived when I was fascinated by Electrical Engineering by my cousin from the NED University of Engineering & Technology. Hence, the desire to become an Electrical Engineer came to life. However, I realized later on that life had other plans when, as is the case for all students, a period of uncertainty loomed over me where, owing to luck and blunders, I did not get what I wanted. I also realized that the world did not revolve around me, but I wanted to do something, be someone despite this setback.
So, having already gained admission in one of the esteemed Universities of Pakistan, I gave Civil Engineering a try but with it, more hurdles followed, hurdles that I never expected for they were baseless and, even now, makes no sense to me, at least in a learning environment. The extreme, conservative atmosphere held me back in more ways than one: no roll calls, no discussions or exchanging of notes with our male peers even though there was always something to learn, restricted to one final year project whether anyone understood or not, and, worst of all, I, being a female, was not allowed to ask a question even so, with curiosity in my nature. Whatever inquiries I had stayed with me, forgotten as temporary motivation of an over-enthusiastic student.
What was supposed to be a form of protection for a woman only turned out to be her shackle against progression.
Why are bridges in Pakistan huge while in the rest of the world they are not? Why has the leaning tower of Pisa not fallen yet? Is it true that concrete is never dry? Why is Civil Engineering called Civil Engineering? Thanks to the prevailing mindset, I had to search for the answers and work myself with little hope of help from others.
Somehow I managed but for a time, it became pointless. At that time, female students were not inducted into the Masters’ Program. So, I gave up and hoped that the worst had passed, that it would only get easier. A naïve hope sadly as they never tell a girl that such a mindset would accompany her in every walk of life. For me, it returned in a different, and yet a very common, form.
When married, a girl is expected to become a woman overnight, but a boy remains a boy.
I was married into a joint family and the moment I entered into the household, all eyes were on me especially when it is a norm in our society for outsiders to exert their ‘experienced’ insight into my life. How does she cook? Why does she serve tea like that? Why does she wash with a machine? What laundry detergent does she use? So many questions with no time to answer when even the In-Laws who have more experience turn their eyes on me. Yes, guidance is appreciated and a blessing even, but when it veers into a controlling attitude by treating grown adults like children, it becomes an issue.
Initially my husband, despite working in one of the best consultancies in Pakistan, earned an inadequate salary, so we had to rely on the family to get by which meant that everything was calculated to the extent that I had to take permission to eat food from the fridge. This was fine and quite logical as long as these calculations were not limited to me, but sadly, they were. Due to these financial hurdles, our family could only afford one car for daily activities. I, however, was only allowed this opportunity for my purposes just once a month. On that day, everyone would get the sudden urge to play twenty questions when all I wanted was to visit my parents. It did not matter whether my father was sick or not. If I did get the permission, there would be a strict curfew of eight P.M. imposed on me where I was even a minute late by any misfortune, the scene that followed was not exactly one to remember.
One adventure is enough to last a lifetime but every day was an adventure for me, if you can call it that. But it was always tiring. Waking up every day at seven, making food for everyone, going out for work which was teaching initially at a City school campus once my daughter was old enough, then returning home, tired and in a mood to rest, but reminded that I have my duties as a mother, wife, and daughter-in-law, to attend to and so, I am back into the kitchen again. Not to be confused, I love cooking, baking especially. I find it wholesome that my family gets to enjoy delights by my hand, but I am human. After all, I get exhausted and sick too, and I need a break. People need to understand that a woman is not a robot that can be ordered around to their whims.
I always had a fiery, impatient nature. It was why I never backed down from saying ‘NO’, but in the eyes of others, such a word was never my right but an insult. Maybe they could not take it, or maybe, as I think back sitting here today, it was me. The way the tone was, everything ended in an argument and there was always a fight for some reason.
It never mattered.
To society, the word ‘NO’ from a woman’s tongue is a weapon, and would never refrain from using it as such.
As each day passed by, and each time my headache intensified, I retreated and in that retreat, I would turn to Allah. In such retreat, I realized the importance of patience and softness, to think before speaking and to remain quiet, and not to accept the wrong but to find a more rational solution at a better time.
My adventures did not mean that life did not get better. Over time, I found the will to continue my career and that, too, in NESPAK. Slowly but surely, situations improved like at the turning point when my husband and I managed to buy our first car. I call it a turning point because it was the point after which situations got easier, not solved but easier nonetheless, and it was because of one reason:
We afforded our own needs.
Now that I have reached the point where I am right now, I have come to the conclusion that good times never truly come in this world, but better times do. For me, both as an individual and as a woman, it is true and remains true. Society says that independence is a choice, but I say that if you want to see these better times, independence must be your goal.”
From Afsana: A story full of twists and turns, a story of every woman whether studying or working, married or unmarried but let us not forget the message she has taught us, shared with us. What her experience shows is that even if they tell us that we have a choice, we really don’t. To stand up on our own feet, to not depend on anyone for our own needs is a necessity rather than a privilege. Please continue to support us by seeking the light of other women on our platform, and if you also have a story to share as a Pakistani woman, please contact us.
Written by Muhammad Hamza Suleman of Afsana