A twice-divorced banker and in her late forties, Farah Mahmood, living independently in Karachi, keeps a double bed and a pair of men’s slippers so that the various handymen, specially the plumbers and the electricians, traipsing around her apartment think there is a husband around.
“It is wise to get a pair of your dad, brother, or friend’s slippers/shoes/sandals and keep them somewhere visible so that they can be seen by those who come to your house to fix things. I do this even though I almost always have another person around when some guy comes to fix a leak or repair an electrical fault,” Mahmood suggests, adding, “For security reasons, it is important to send the message that there is a male member in the house and that you do not live alone.”
Fifty-year old Rehana Rehman is unmarried and works in a telecommunications company in Islamabad. She lives with an elderly mother and introduces herself as Mrs Rehman when talking to a stranger to ward off any untoward attention. “If I remain in Pakistan, I should have a man around; if I leave, I don’t need one”. However, she is not averse to the idea of marriage, she says.
“Even a simple blocked sink becomes a huge plumbing job because there is no man in the house,” says Rehman adding, “Everyone, including the plumber, the electrician, and the car mechanic will try to con you.” But, she says, even when you know they are cheating, all you can do is suffer in silence as the work needs to get done.
And Mahmood says wryly, “You will be surprised how quickly people notice that it is you who drives up in your car and that you always give women stuff for dry cleaning not men’s stuff!”
“To avoid the message getting across that you are single and perhaps living alone, it is important to induct male presence in the single-female-perhaps-living-alone scenario,” Mahmood suggests.
Both are leading a single’s life in two different cities of Pakistan, but say without any reservations that living the day-to-day life in this society without a man by their side is nothing short of daunting.
“It’s not a merry picture; it’s a constant, continuous sketch that you have to doodle every single day of your life,” laments Mahmood.
Having worked and lived as a single woman abroad for many years, Rehman terms living in Pakistan very “inconvenient”.
“Breaking away from the family set-up is a slow process and has to be done gently as parents in our culture still find it difficult to let go of daughters,” says Azra Saeed.
For example, she says, going to government offices without prior connections for resolution of even the easiest of tasks, is a humiliating experience. “It’s not that they will openly flirt with you or show an interest in you; and they will never have the guts to say ‘let’s go out for coffee’, and mind you they will always be polite. Yet they will find any and every excuse to chat you up, keep you at their desk for just that much longer, and still not get the desired work done”.
These days, she says, the newest fad among the menfolk is sending poetic text messages. “It starts with innocuous greetings on auspicious days but doesn’t just end there; slowly you find yourself inundated with silly couplets,” she says exasperatedly adding, “This is nothing short of sexual harassment!”
Pakistani society is just not tuned for a single lifestyle. There are no provisions for that and no one celebrates singlehood.
“If you go out to buy a single sheet or mattress, more designs and variations are available in queen and king sizes. Single sheets usually come in prints specifically made for children. Everything in the retail world caters to family, nothing for the single person. Small packs, one person packs do not exist. Everything has to be bought for family and a big one too,” laments Mahmood.
Finding safe and affordable accommodation is another challenge for single women. “Many people who want to rent out a portion of their house are deterred by your single status,” says Mahmood.
A forty-something Azra Saeed, working in the development sector, can vouch for that. Hailing from Gujranwala, she has been living on her own now for almost two years, first in Lahore and then moved to Islamabad. “Most landlords will ask you if you will have male guests visiting you and squirm uneasily if you nod. I am not a very party type person but then I’d rather make it clear from the beginning that there may be some colleagues or male friends who may want to visit, rather than bring them home on the sly.”
As opposed to Mahmood and Rehman, Saeed loves her newfound independence but adds, “Breaking away from the family set-up is a slow process and has to be done gently as parents in our culture still find it difficult to let go of daughters.”
Perhaps the only armour against the society single women have, apart from some support from family and friends, is education that gives them the confidence to fight the odds.
Naeema Ahmed was just 31 when her husband suddenly passed away leaving her with three small kids and clueless to solving the daily problems.
“I didn’t even know how to write a cheque; I’d never have to make a budget and never driven a car!” Ahmed recalls.
It was the advice given by her neighbour, during her iddat that struck a chord somewhere. ‘She told me I must complete my education if I wanted to live away from the protective custody of my father and brothers.” She did just that. Today a librarian at a school, she has learnt to balance the bitter-sweet life of living without a man by her side with dignity and confidence.
Yet, most single unmarried women agree that a lot of time they are pitied. Samina Sadik, 50, lives in a joint family with her parents and brother’s family. “People think that just because I have crossed the ideal marriageable age, I should be falling for just about any man who comes knocking at our door.”
Her mother is asked at almost every social gathering and well within Sadik’s earshot the “kuch hua?” question. “My mother’s silence and look of pain that she tries to hide kills something in me every time,” she says, adding, “It’s time like those that I want to get away from Pakistan.”
Rehman says, in her experience, it is her male colleagues’ wives who are very keen to see her married off. But she is not sure if it’s “well intentioned” or there is an “ulterior motive” to have her hooked up with someone. Mahmood believes among her neighbours, she finds that women are wary and husbands over-friendly.
Rehman, however, is quite sure fidelity is rather overrated in Pakistan, and given even half a chance, men would grab the opportunity to cheat on their wives and single women at work are an easy prey. “Men just automatically believe that you are there for the taking,” she says.
Sara Asad, a widow now in her mid forties, knows this all too well. After her husband’s death, some ten years back, she found to her horror that many of his friends started making advances towards her. “It was difficult and hurtful to ward off this uncalled for attention!” she said.
— All names have been changed as requested.