My grandmother lives in Attock, Pakistan.
Growing up, I saw Attock developing from a village to a city. However, the small underdeveloped villages on the outskirts of Attock are still there and one of the villagers works as a maid. Her name is Shahida. When I went spent a week at my grandmother’s house, I had the honor of interacting with Shahida and learning her story.
On the outside, I saw a very feeble and petite woman who looked tired and weak, but from the inside, she held a plethora of strength and resilience. As her story unfolded, I realized it is a tale no different than the ones of so many other Pakistani women.
Shahida works in 5 different houses.
Her tasks include cooking, washing the dishes and clothes, and mopping floors. She travels to the city using public transport to arrive by 7 in the morning. From making someone’s kitchen shine to washing someone else’s clothes, she runs from one house to another until evening and goes back to her village as the sun goes down.
Shahida’s husband, who never did have a full-time job, was always dependent on Shahida’s income.
Shahida goes back home to her five children; two sons, two daughters, and one step-daughter. Her husband had married and brought another young bride home one day and Shahida was left with no choice but to welcome her and live with a co-wife, silently accepting the polygyny. After a year, however, the new bride decided to marry another man. She left her husband and their newly born daughter and fled.
Shahida’s husband, who never did have a full-time job, was always dependent on Shahida’s income to pay the rent and feed the family. His newborn daughter was an infant, so Shahida raised her along with her own children since the very beginning.
Regardless of being dependent on Shahida’s income, the ‘man of the house’ would hit her and never felt ashamed. He knew that Shahida would remain living with domestic abuse due to the agonizing societal taboo of being a divorced woman. The only thing that saved her husband from being treated like the worthless, abusive piece of crap he was, was his gender.
“I have been working for the past 19 years,” said Shahida. “I have worked very hard and built my own house. Unlike my husband, my dignity did not allow me to sit at home and watch my children starve.”
“I wanted to set the right example of hard work for my children. When I started working, my brother took his cap off of his head, put it at my feet and made me promise not to be a scarlet letter for the family. I have spent my entire life protecting the worth of his cap,” Shahida welled up as she shared her story.
“My story is very painful as I recall it,” she continued. “If I wanted to get separation from my husband, my family would doubt my homemaking capabilities. I am poor but that does not mean I’m not respectable. My children ask me to stop working now but I don’t know what else to do, if not work.”
Many marriages in our society take place not out of love but to secure a woman’s future.
Being male is a privilege – a privilege that costs the female gender dearly. I kept asking Shahida why she was putting up with a good-for-nothing man in her house when she had financial power now. But she had no valid answer except “pleasing society.”
Shahida, being the sole breadwinner, was a strong and resilient homemaker who still couldn’t figure out that she was being crushed by the male privilege. For her, the status she had as a married woman in her neighborhood and her family was most important to her – and this status was, unfortunately, only given to her from her husband, the “man” who was supposedly providing her and her family.
Being male is a privilege – a privilege that costs the female gender dearly.
Even after knowing that Shahida is the only provider, everyone in the neighborhood still cannot utter a word against her husband because he is a man and that fact alone makes it enough for him to survive in this society.
The worst part is that even Shahida cannot afford to acknowledge out loud that she doesn’t need a male figure in her house – that would make her the wrong type of woman in society. Though Shahida was independent, in every sense of the word, she was dependent on a man for her status.
Shahida’s story is no different than the story of so many other working women of Pakistan who raise their kids and “husbands” on their own. Many marriages in our society take place not out of love but to secure a woman’s future by tagging her name with a man, even if he is good for nothing.
I can’t help but think how different our society would be if we stopped allowing a woman’s honor to be directly related to a man and started focusing on the woman’s individuality, capability and contribution to society.
Not only would this give women the chance to excel and succeed in life, but it would hold men to a higher standard as well.