Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pashtun Women Problems (and solutions)

When this blog went private for a couple of weeks, I wrote some things that I wish I could share in public but since I can't share all of it, I'm gonna go ahead and share the ones I can share with everyone. I was always talkative, I've always used this blog as a "venting" machine, and I've rarely needed the inspiration -- since there's enough injustice around me to inspire me. But recently, or at least as of late Dec. 2011, there's this Pukhtun girl on Twitter whose Twitter nick is @myGHATproblems. I plan to dedicate another long post to her soon, ka khairee, but in the mean time, I only wanna say that her tweets have been very inspirational for me. She's sorta opened my eyes to the many contradictions and double standards inside the Pashtun culture that I always knew -- all Pukhtuns know they're there, right in our face -- but I think I've been setting them aside, or considering justifications for them. No, nothing can ever excuse a double standard, most certainly not when it has negative consequences for a specific gender (or genders) or another group of the people of that society.  Again, I'll write on this more hopefully soon (hopefully this weekend?), but I just wanted to say how influential Ghata Bibi is proving to be to me. And I'm sure to many other Pukthuns on Twitter who follow her tweets. She's hilarious, too :D

Now, to the point of this blog post!!! These are coming from recent events in the Pashtun community I live in.  (Unless otherwise specified, I'm talking about Pashtun women in my own community. It's about 12-15 families in the city. The women I speak of are at least 40 years old.) I can't claim that all Pashtun women in the U.S. or in all of the west face the same issues, but I am sure that they're shared by many. And if they're not, be grateful and consider the cause of the issues I discuss below and make sure you're able to detect them if they shall ever occur in your community, too.

I live in a community where a mother's wish from the time her daughter reaches puberty (if not earlier) is for her daughter to be married. It almost doesn't matter if he's abusive or not, as long as he will "take care" of her. The mother will perform many khatmuna (a religious ritual of reciting certain Qur'anic surahs or verses or some other important Islamic sayings in Arabic) to ensure that her daughter gets married soon. If the problem isn't good proposals coming the daughter's way, then it's most likely the daughter's unwillingness to get married. In this case, the purpose of the mother's khatmuna is so that her daughter will soon accept a proposal. [More details to come later.]

I live in a community where few, if any, of the Pukhtun women can speak English, even if enough to find their way around town, get grocery, go to the bank, or take care of other things that may come in handy in cases of emergency. The saddest part is that they take pride in this. Most of these women have been here for over 10 years. [More details to come later.]

I live in a community where most of the Pashtun women I interact with suffer from extreme depression. When Many of them have been diagnosed, and others show symptoms of it but refuse to see a therapist or psychiatrist or some other professional help because, like many people around the world, they think getting help means you're crazy. No, these women are not crazy (not to imply that crazy people are any less than non-crazy people). It is not uncommon for women in Swat (if not in other areas in Pakistan, too) to get what we call saadubi (literally: suffocation, but it's when the person (usually a woman) screams for several minutes and doesn't know what's going on around her; it's a panic attack that can come at any moment, very common in funerals [so I'm not sure if "panic attack" works as an inclusive definition here]) and peryaan (epilepsy/seizure - and research shows that patients with epilepsy tend to have high rates of depression). I'm not saying this just to say that oh, look, many Pashtun women have depression and it's sad and this and that -- but I want to instead discuss the reasons behind and the consequences of this problem. When you sit with these women and you listen to them talk, you may very easily find yourself in tears because things are so, SO freaking wrong. If you're like me, you're stuck: on the one hand, you really want to help them be healthy or have healthier minds; but on the other, they are so bad to the other women around them (explained below) that you can't help but despise them for it. I don't despise them, though, of course. I don't excuse their backbiting and gossiping, but I can't find it in me to hate them. My hating them will be of any use neither to them nor to me, and I really want to do something that would be beneficial to them -- in any way.

As for the reasons of their mental problems, there are many, and I am saying all of this without having studied them thoroughly. It has occurred to me time and again to study their situations in order that I may figure out what the ultimate problems are so that we can also provide some solutions. It scares me that this may be a generational thing (we'll see from some of the reasons I will list in a second), in which case this could go on for a long, long while. So I hope that if not me, someone else from my generation will do something about this.
I'm listing these possible reasons in no particular order, certainly not of importance.

  • not knowing the language and customs of the country they live in (discussed below), extreme reliance on a husband, children, or someone else who knows the language/culture at least a little
  • boredom - there's not as much work (housework especially) here in the West as there is back home because of the joint family system.
  • not having people to talk to - this is similar to boredom, but I'm not talking about just any kind of people to talk to. I'm talking about people who will listen to them, not judge them, not give them advice, etc. You know how sometimes you just want to express your feelings out loud to someone and you don't want to hear any advice, suggestion, or anything of the sort? Yeah, like that. When these women, I think, share their feelings with other women, they might get told, "Oh come on - that's nothing to worry about" or "yeah, I'm the same way" ... and the latter one makes the first woman who started it even more depressed! You put two people suffering from the same situation together, and you're not gonna have some good results. They need to be at least sometimes around "happy" people or nonchalant people so that they will be forced to smile and be happy. Plus, there's also that fear that if she tells another woman what her fears are or what's bothering her, the other woman WILL share that confidential information with others, possibly even her husband or kids.
  • scared for their daughters' future, especially if they're not married. This could be so bad that the mother might experience severe anxiety at a moment as "trivial" (or what you or I might consider trivial) as the daughter's wearing too short a shirt such that her back shows (we wear longer shirts so that we are covered from front and back, and then it's okay, at least with some parents, if your jeans/pants are tight).
  • afraid of people's opinions and gossip taking place back home - I can't stress enough how much this affects these women and their daughters and possibly their sons, too. They will place some extreme limits on their daughters only because they think that way, no one will talk badly of their daughters. But unfortunately, people back home will somehow find out something negative to say about their own relatives here in the west and spread it around, and the more it spreads around, the worse and more dirty the gossips get... to a point where, if they reach the mothers here, they have a mental breakdown. The saddest thing in this case is that the women back home actually tend to give their daughters much more freedom than we get here in the west. Okay, maybe the women don't give it to their daughters: daughters get it from the media, peers, and others around them, especially if they go to school. but the moment a mother here lets her daughter do something that's not considered the norm, even if that exact same thing takes place among girls back home AND their mothers know about it, the women here will be accused of having abandoned their culture and become Americanized. It's as though the main representatives and carriers of our culture are only the women who live outside of Pukhtun land. This pressure, this burden has proven dangerous for us mentally and hence physically, and we need to figure out a way to communicate its cause to those who play a role in nurturing it.
  • More later!
Last February, we were introduced to a new Pukhtun woman who had moved to our neighborhood. When I say "neighborhood," I really mean approximately 3-5 miles from my house. So I told my mom that I want her and this new lady to become friends and meet regularly and I'll take her there or go and bring the other lady to our house whenever they'd like. I actually suggested every other day, if not daily. We planned to have what we call in Pashto dodai, sort of like a welcome (or congratulation or thank-you dinner/lunch), for the family, and I was supposed to bring her to our house this one weekend. She told my mom that she has been miserable here (because she gets bored, doesn't know how to drive to move around, and doesn't know the language to talk with neighbors) and is going back to Pakistan. I remember that one time I met her ... the misery was very clear in her voice and face. I felt really sorry for her. In her case, her husband and son would go to work and get home at night and she'd be alone all day long.

I live in a community where most of the Pashtun women live off of gossip and backbiting with tight headcoverings and, in the cases of a few (very few) burqas/niqabs. [Details to come later.]

I live in a community where the women are their own worst enemies as well as the worst enemies of other women around them, even those they appear to be friends with. [Details to come later.]

I live in a community where I am perhaps the most faulty of all women. I am fully aware of the problems and I have considered some solutions (my plan was that if I didn't do grad school, I'd take a year off and teach the Pukhtun women English, having them gather in one designated place twice a week, and that was gonna be my start ...), but while that is still an idea for me, I haven't put it in practice. At times like these, knowledge is useless. Knowledge is useless when it can't be put to use when it needs to be to benefit yourself and/or someone else and/or other people. In my case, the Pashtun women in my own community need me more than they prolly need anyone else, but what am I doing? No, I'm not doing anything insignificant. But whatever it is that I am doing, it's not of ANY use to the women around me. And we can't keep putting everything off to the future, to when we grow up, to when we're able, to when we have the means, to when we have the time. Because you know what? We'll NEVER have the time. We'll never have the means if we don't create those means today. What's worse is that these problems become worse and worse by the day, they're not lessening, they're not weakening, they're not being solved.

One Possible Solution

But at the same time, I alone cannot help much. I think all Pashtun daughters/sons are at fault, and we all share the responsibility equally. If each of us did something for our mothers (and/or fathers, depending on our situation), starting at what we think is perhaps the smallest, most beginner step, we WILL go a long way, and we CAN help solve these issues. Most of us are on our laptops while our mothers watch some depressing Pakistani/Indian dramas, I am sure, so how about perhaps taking an hour of our day -- just one hour, really -- and actually doing something with our mom? Talk to her, hug her (I know we don't typically get all huggy and stuff with our mothers, but come on! They love it!), watch a drama with her (but I suggest something funny, not typical Desi drama), take her shopping, take her to a park, take her to see some family friends, TEACH HER ENGLISH (!!!), teach her how to drive, cook with her, tell her you will take over the cooking/cleaning on a certain day of the week, buy her phone cards, find her a job if she wants one, ... really, anything. These are actually very small moves, but they go a long way. Sometimes we forget how much our parents had to give up back home just so we could live successful and happy lives here. When I went back to Swat, the number and the kinds of people who came to visit my mother was incredible. Then I talked to my dad about that, what with our parents having everything back home and only a little more than nothing here ... it's really sad.

Anyway, readers are welcome and strongly encouraged to suggest other possible solutions as well. Many thanks!

P.S. I will be updating this particular post because of the details I have left out wherever indicated. Feel free to drop by later on if you're interested.


  1. Stating the problems is one bold and appreciaable step however finding out the causes of the problem is more important and their solution is the most important. The "Ghat" and the "warokay should think about finding out the causes of the problems and try to propose solutions.

  2. Glad you find it interesting, Izdiher jaan!
    Pir Rokhana, did you miss the part of the post with bulletins, starting with "I'm listing these possible reasons in no particular order, certainly not of importance" ko? Za mara.

    You are also more than welcomed to offer something, especially solutions :)

  3. Really important topic, thank you for sharing!

    As a complete outsider, with no right to interfere, I think, as you mention, it's incredibly important that we have something to fill our lives, more than just keeping house and gossiping. Like you said, for these women to learn English, and be able to be involved with the community. I know from myself, that if I don't get passionate about something, I start to get depressed, withdraw, and I become a miserable person both to be and be around.

    Another question, is there anything that we, as the outside community, can do to help? I realize that I'm not in the US, but we do have similar problems (I think) in Denmark, although, Denmark tend to force people to learn Danish (you can't get benefits if you don't speak Danish, so, if you're out of work, and you want to be supported by the state, you have to start studying Danish full time (paid for by the state also)).

  4. Thank you so much for your comment, Beckyyyy!

    Actually, I think everyone has a right to "interfere" in others' affairs when those affairs are destructive! Everyone does it already, hahaha! But the problem, of course, is figuring out which affairs are destructive and what destructive actually means. In this case, where the women's health (and hence the health of those around them) is going bad because of what's going on, then it's all right to "interfere."

    That sounds way, WAY too good, man, that everyone has to learn Danish and it's paid for by the state! I don't think such a thing exists in the U.S., perhaps because there's too many immigrants here? And one way racism is seen here is compelling others to learn English. Annnd you can get by completely without knowing any English here, so.

    I think the language issue is a big one here for the Pashtun women I know, and it also builds more walls between parents and their children, making it very difficult for us to talk to our parents and get ourselves heard and hear them. So if you were here, I'd definitely recommend that if you wanna help, start by teaching them English :) Talking to them, interacting them, doing things with them so that they don't think about their problems ... things like that.

    Thanks for asking and for being generous enough to help! I wish you was heeeeeeere, man! *tears*

  5. Hmmm, well, I think by right to interfere, I also meant the knowledge to know when to interfere, and how to interfere, and to realize, that what you think is "good" or "bad", might be seen differently in another culture.

    Yeah, I do think it's a good thing. But it's also very hard to find a job in DK if you don't speak Danish, especially since the financial crisis. It used to be fairly easy to get a job if you had a degree and was fluent in English, but even that is getting very difficult these days.

    Heh, it's actually harder to get into Denmark (legally as well) than it is to get into the US :P Many Americans think the US is so bloody wonderful and everyone is just dying to get there, now, there's a good chance I'll end up living in the US, at least for a while, but in many many many ways I think Denmark is much better.

    Awww I'd love to help if I was there :) I often help my English-speaking friends practice their Danish, although many forget I'm actually Danish :P I've been told often I'm a very atypical Dane :P


Dare to opine :)

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