Diary of a ‘wilayaati larki’, the girl from abroad.
At the age of 22, heading to senior year at University, I had enough journalistic experience under my belt to be spoilt for internship options. Contrary to most people’s choices, I decided to opt for a work experience away from home, my Dubai.
I was thrilled when I received my internship letter from Dawn News in Lahore. It was going to be an honour to work in Pakistan for a news organization founded by the father Quaid-E-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. As I merrily packed my bags to work in a country where I had only spent my sheltered vacations [so I didn’t know intimately], I didn’t realize that I’d come face to face with my own strong misconceptions of being a working woman. Here are a few I’ve encountered:
Culture and Professionalism are antonyms:
Having been raised in Canada and Dubai, since I was a little girl, I had imagined my first day at work wearing tucked shirts and well tailored pants with minimal jewellery to indicate pristine professionalism. With this deeply embedded notion, as I stepped into the Dawn newsroom for the first time, I immediately spotted and judged two other interns; They were sporting ‘shalwar-kameezs’, the national dress of Pakistan. I stared at them and they stared right back.
As the day went by and misconceptions fell away, I saw, despite my first impression, that my fellows were extremely component, sharp and well-learned in their field of work. It struck me many times during that first day how easy it is to presume a person’s skill based on garb.
Perhaps, years immersed in ‘high fashion’ culture have led us to unconsciously conclude that a strong, independent working woman is someone in a pencil skirt or suit. I soon realized that it was a mark of dignity, not an absence of professionalism, that a Pakistani working woman takes pride in her culture.
Opportunities for females in the workplace are limited
During my first week of internship at Dawn News, it was evident that the office was dominated by males. I’ve used to working with males in school and university, but in Pakistan, while the interaction isn’t limited, the context and cultural environment is different. For the first time, I was nervous to interact with the males in my office because the stereotype of Pakistani men being unaccommodating to the women working in their office was commonplace.
Having been given very little work [probably owing to the fact I was an intern], I voiced myself to my internship head and politely told him I was ready to begin field reporting. Sure, he was slightly taken aback but I was given the green flag to step out into the field. A bit of clear communication is all it takes, ladies.
It’s a jungle out there for working women
Another dominant ideology about working women in Pakistan is that they are absolutely endangered once they step out of their homes. I admit it isn’t a bed of roses and working women have to face some discomfort on the field, but the pre-supposed inferiority to males in the office wasn’t an issue. On the contrary, the men I encountered saw it as their responsibility to protect their female colleagues from what they perceive to be uncomfortable.
Yes, many of you will argue that protection implies superiority, but in Pakistani culture, it is a mark of respect.
On my first day of reporting, in Anarkali Bazaar, a crowded central marketplace, I felt the streets of Lahore; I was afraid of being trampled, shoved inappropriately, or being cat-called. My senior reporter, sensing my queasiness, even suggested I stay in the van if I was uncomfortable. I persisted.
I soon realized it was all about body language: if you looked confident, you’d be able to tread the street fearlessly. The people surrounding us were only curious. I grabbed the mic and went on to deliver my first news package in an environment that was entirely foreign to me.
Many women, regardless of geography, face obstacles in their professional lives on the basis of gender. We don’t need the added scare of stereotypes that aren’t true. I didn’t set out to disprove these commonly held notions, but I ended up doing just that.
So, toughen up, go out there and prove them wrong, wherever you are.