Women In Pakistan

Women In Pakistan

Women are at various levels of development in Pakistan which is not very dissimilar to India. Some women are working in very high positions. Both the Sait sisters, my local hosts, were working women and were holding very good positions. One of them was the Financial Officer of a multinational company and was paid a salary of Rs.10,000/- at that time. The other one was Secretary to the Managing Director of a private firm and was paid a salary of Rs.4,500/- These salaries were actually higher than what was prevalent in India, at that time, for women working in private sectors. All women employees are required to be picked up and dropped back by the company car. Every company has to ensure at least some women are employed by them.

One does not see too many women going around unescorted. The girls going to schools, colleges and work places often walk in groups. Of course, you see plenty of women in shopping centres. Some women observe parda (veil) but majority of them do not. However, most of the women dress in a salwar kameez. Many women who have migrated from parts of Bihar, Bengal and UP do wear sarees, especially the women from Bangla Desh. There are a lot of Bengali Muslim families who have settled in Karachi. They had arrived there when Pakistan and Bangla Desh was one nation. Many of them could not go back. Most of the Bengali women work as house maids and undertake other menial jobs. Many women do cover their heads, but few veil their faces.

However, in our conference we had a participant named Azra, from Islamabad, who became very close to me and she was fully veiled all the time. That was in spite of having spent two years in Salt Lake City Utah in USA, from where she obtained a Masters degree in Sociology. In order to see her face I had to take her to my hotel room. She was a charming and bright young girl looking forward to getting married, while not letting any of the eligible bachelors see her. Myself and our Sri Lankan consultant, Mrs. Atanayake, did our best to convince her that she had to come out of covers if she was really to work for the cause of women and family planning.

Azra was deeply religious. She often recited long passages from the Holy Koran in her beautiful Arabic and later translated them into English for my benefit. In fact both of us turned Koran Shrief upside down in search of passages which say women should be in veil. To my great relief we could not find any such passage. It was good that the veil did not deter her enthusiasm for life. She was full of zest and escorted me everywhere. She did not hesitate to climb on a camel run on the beach and accompanied me even to the Shiva Temple in Clifton. I also visited the largest slum in Karachi called Orangi. This slum had a population of more than ten lakhs at that time and is considered one of the largest slums in the world along with Dharawi in Bombay.

Orangi is mainly the home of ordinary migrants from India who came to pursue the dream of Pakistan. The largest population is of weavers from Benaras. Hence it is known as small Benaras. It has more than 50,000 Karkhanas (weaving workshops). Most of the women here are involved in weaving. Comparatively women in Orangi were quite backward. They are mostly illiterate, enjoy poor health and are very poor. At the health centre I met a woman who had just given birth to her 12th child and was carrying her thirteenth baby. She was absolutely pale and weak and had at last arrived in the family planning clinic for advice. I have seen in Benaras, in contemporary India, Muslim women having six to seven children but not twelve any more. I think there is a great need to promote maternal and child health among women in Pakistan. The birth rate in Pakistan is one of the highest in the world. The female health worker who is the central figure for the contraceptive programme is not allowed to move around.

There are twelve hundred family planning clinics in Pakistan and as many female health workers. Since salaries are good, their families are allowing them to take up the job as health workers but not allowing them to make house visits or to undertake any extension work within their jurisdiction. The family planning centre which is supposed to serve a population of 50,000 is effectively serving only a population of five hundred to one thousand women who are living in and around the centre. Due to this reason, the bulk of rural women go without any family planning cover in spite of the centres being established with aid from abroad.

However, there was the other side of the coin. A number of women doctors were carrying out research on reproductive health in the prestigious state-owned research centre. The women I met here were very sophisticated and as modern and emancipated as women in any developed part of the world. They were deeply involved in the advance medical research in collaboration with WHO and other agencies. They had short hair, wore chiffon sarees with sleeveless blouses and thin strings of Japanese pearls and proudly said their families came from Hyderabad in India. They liked to maintain their distinctive identity and as far as Karachi was concerned they were really upper class.


Exploring Karachi

I began my exploration of Karachi escorted by the Sait family by visiting the Musoleum of Kaide Azam Mohammed Ali Zinnah and paying homage to the Father of the Nation. It is a beautiful and uniquely designed modern structure inspired by pyramids. Surrounded it are vast green grounds and beautiful gardens where most of the people of Karachi come to spend very pleasant evenings. While strolling on the ground I saw many beautiful women. I was tempted to take a picture of a newly-wed woman, of course, I had to take permission from her husband which he graciously granted.

From there we drove around Zinnah road, Port Office, Taj Mahal Hotel, Avari Hotel and the Karachi Bay from where boat rides can be taken to various places including an island called Manora where a small temple is believed to exist. On the roads what strikes you first is the colourfully painted and decorated buses. Private transporters vie with each other in beautifying their buses. The government buses can be identified by their more sober exteriors. The best thing is that all trucks and tankers are also beautifully decorated and you feel that they are headed for a marriage procession. Equally colourful is Subzimandhi where you see mounds of fresh vegetables and all types of familiar and unfamiliar, big and small fruits. What strikes you most is the large melon like fruits (which are not melons) and for some reason are called both Garmas (hot ones) and Sardas (cool ones) by the people as per their wish. It has a cooling quality so why call it Garma? (perhaps because one eats them in hot season). Incidentally, Karachi was even hotter than Madras in October.

Sadar Bazaar is the place to go for inexpensive shopping. The streets are full of shops selling dry fruits and video & audio cassettes. From here you can generously help yourself to video tapes of Pakistani plays (most of the video libraries in Madras have a fine collection of Pakistani plays). You can also buy plenty of audio tapes of good Pakistani classical music (which is similar to Hindustani classical music) gazals and melodious qwalies. I picked up a tape of popular hits and another of gazals sung by the star gazal singer Munni Begum. Every gazal sung by Munni Begum centres around the joys of drinking alcohol. It is in strange contrast to the prohibition enforced in Pakistan. Coming back to the shopping the real thing to buy in Karachi is the finest Pakistani cotton printed with bold Sindhi prints and a variety of checks and stripes. The best Egyptian cotton is grown in the black soil of Indus Valley. The textile shops are full of colourful Pakistan, Japanese, Korean, Indian and assorted materials. One can also purchase embroidered as well as hand printed shawls with Sindhi block prints. The thriving local craft is the articles made of marble and the green onyx stone exquisitely hand carved into ash trays, bowls, flower vases, jewellery boxes, lamp stands, plates and even ice buckets. Thousands of artisans make a living on this craft which reminds one of Mughal and Rajput school of stone craft.

The town of Karachi is a large sprawling town which goes along the coast for miles with a population of more than a crore. Yet you neither see crowds nor traffic jams. Roads are very wide. New areas are all very well-planned and have a lot of high buildings. There is a lot of open space around the high-rise buildings. You have a great sense of space. Pollution levels are much lower compared to both Bombay and Madras. Best of all, the roads are clean. Nowhere you see piles of garbage or huge dumps of waste cluttering or the debris on the roads which is such a familiar sight in Madras. There are no encroachments on the roads and the pavements are for walking. Most of the city really looks beautiful. There are several beaches in and around Karachi. The most known being the Clifton beach, which is very large and offers very exciting camel rides. You can ride a colourfully decorated camel, who will rush you right into the waves, for just ten rupees. You can also have rides on the horse-driven buggies.

One of the most outstanding buildings in Karachi is the Aghakhan Memorial Hospital, a well-planned hospital with latest equipment and treatment facilities. The building is a very modern cubist structure in red soft stone, the type, extensively used in buildings and forts in Rajasthan. It is surrounded by large gardens and plenty of trees. The Aghakhan family, who lived in India, migrated abroad after partition of India and have made large donations both in India and Pakistan. It was in the Aghakhan Palace that Gandhiji was kept in captivity, when Kasturba breathed her last. Not very far from the Aghakhan hospital is the stadium where all cricket matches are played. I ended my first day’s exploration of Karachi by paying a visit to the house of my host Mr.Ayub Sait and sharing a meal with his family.


A Madrasi in Karachi

My mother first visited Karachi when she was about ten years old. Her father was posted as a Forest Officer with headquarters at Muzzaffarabad. She remembered occasionally going to Karachi with her parents on excursions to buy clothes, knickknacks, eats and dry fruits.The Sindhi embroidery which she still prides herself in executing was also picked up by her in Karachi. She also remembers coming there with her grandmother. The family was taking the grandmother on a pilgrimage which started in Srinagar in Kashmir and had continued through Lahore, Rawalpindi, Karachi and so on. In Karachi they had visited the Shiva Temple at Clifton and the Gurudwara – Guru Mandir Sahib. The visit had finally ended at Haridwar, where grandma had a dip in the Holy Ganges, which was the ultimate objective of the journey. This visit has been duly recorded by Kashmiri Panda in Haridwar and was verified by me and my husband in 1981, on our first visit together to Haridwar.

Karachi, truly the soul of the Sindh province, is a thriving business centre quite comparable to Bombay. Before independence it was the home town of Sindhis who had to migrate to different parts of the globe. Today they are considered the most successful business men in the world. I have been longing to make a visit to Karachi and acquaint myself with the great culture of Sindh for many years; but visiting Pakistan has not been a simple matter since partition. The opportunity to visit Karachi in connection with the Regional Workshop on Rural Development and Family Planning was exactly the kind of chance I had wanted. The visit was full of surprises. I met a whole lot of interesting people and experienced plenty of courtesies, love and affection.

At the airport, Mr. Abid from the M.T.I. (Management Training Institute), the venue of the conference, was waiting for me and without much formality whisked me away to the Hotel Beach Luxury. It is one of the older hotels in Karachi, established around 1947 and owned by a Parsi family known as Avarees. The Avarees are very respectable family at Karachi and own a number of establishments, including the famous Avari Hotel. One of the family members Behram Avaree has been a distinguished member of Legislation representing minorities. Beach Luxury Hotel is located right on the backwaters of Karachi, next to a bridge which goes right across the backwaters. It had a large lawn by the backwaters to hold the parties and gave us plenty of sea food to eat.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a large mangrove forest, spread for miles, along the backwater. Not many people were aware of the uniqueness of these mangrove forests, which is also a distinct feature of Pichavaram in Tamilnadu and Sunder Bans in West Bengal. I could sense that the destruction of the forest was taking place as was the case in Pichavaram. Still there is a lot left, which needs to be preserved and protected. During my visit I did try to create among the journalists whom I met some awareness of the importance of a mangrove forest. As soon as I reached the Hotel, I got a call to my room from the housekeeper, Sayyeda Begum. She wanted to see me immediately. I understood from the reception staff that she had been anxiously waiting for the ‘Indian delegate’ to the conference. When she learnt that the Indian delegate was from Madras she was terribly excited. As it turned out later her family was originally from Madras.

Seyyada Begum, a charming woman in her thirties, soon came up to my room with a bouquet of flowers and inquired about Madras, the city of her ancestors, with great affection. She invited me to her house for tea and appointed herself my local hostess. She said that her mother would have loved to meet me but she was no more. From then on, I knew I was the most important person in that Hotel. My stay there was made most homely and comfortable by her and the other staff. My friends in Madras had arranged for Mr. Ayub Sait, formerly of Sait Colony at Madras, (incidentally his grandfather was the founder of the Sait Colony) to be my friend, philosopher and local guardian. The Saits were a lovely family of two brothers and two sisters in Pakistan, while one brother remaining in India and the rest of them being in other parts of the world. Due to the kind attention of Ayub Sait and his sisters I felt totally at home in Karachi. My exploration of Karachi, in their company, started as soon as I finished receiving flowers from Sayyeda Begum. I was being handed over from one ex-Madrasi to another ex-Madrasi.