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new internationalist
issue 219 - May 1991


A Western woman goes to live in Pakistan. A Pakistani woman
comes to live in the West. Both have to adjust to different cultures. But there is a
crucial difference as Maria Naseem – the Western woman – discovers.

When summer was approaching – with a hazy heat and threatening stillness in the air – I went to stay with a friend in a small village south-west of Lahore. Fourteen family members were cramped into the two-roomed house and small yard when I arrived. With flies hovering around me I sat in the yard surrounded by many pairs of large, watchful eyes. Desperately I tried not to drop my food – guiding the thin, runny curry into a fold of bread. Self-conscious and humiliated I wanted to shout at the tiny children who gawped at me like a trapped animal in a cage and at the older women who sniggered behind their veils.

My silent irritation increased when at night the father told me that they’d made a bed for me with the rest of the family. Never in my life had I so badly wanted to be left alone to sweat, to curse and to dream of the cool, green hills of England. When my friend gently explained to her father that I would be happier in the other room he was horrified ‘If I went to stay with friends and they made me sleep in a room all of my own I would think I was being punished. But it’s your choice!’ And then he walked off, shaking his head, to change the sleeping arrangements.

I went to Pakistan with a suitcase of expectations and a mission to fight alongside the local people for change. The position of women, poverty, child labour; these were my priorities. Within a month most of these preconceptions shattered as I realized I could hardly communicate with the people let alone understand them. Almost unconsciously I began slipping into the lifestyle which was pulling at me and, indeed, welcoming me. By the time I left Pakistan I was wholly accustomed to sharing not only bedrooms with friends and their families but beds also. I’d have been hurt if having been invited to stay at someone’s house I was not invited to sleep beside several women and half a dozen children. In the end I chose companionship against self-imposed loneliness.

Resettling in England – after 18 months away – I found myself rejecting the English way of life. But I had to be practical and readapt. Now I live in London in a close community of Asians and I enjoy a mixed lifestyle. I am lucky to have made these choices myself.

Shazia, however, could never break out of the conventions that ruled her life. She’s a Punjabi married to a Pathan whose family moved to West Germany in the 1980s, leaving Shazia, her husband and two children behind in the Old City of Peshawar. They enjoyed life there but always looked forward to the freedom of Germany. Shazia fantasized about strolling down brightly-lit streets arm-in-arm with her husband, he in his best suit, she in a skirt and blouse. When finally they reached Germany Shazia was awe-struck by the wide highways and the large, clean houses. Her mother-in-law was thrilled to see them and treated Shazia like an honoured guest.

But after several months Shazia realized that she had not once left the house. She was expected to do all the housework, wait on guests and look after the children. And she was followed around the house by a string of complaints from her mother-in-law.

One day the old woman announced a picnic and Shazia excitedly prepared the food – looking forward to her first outing. But the family left her behind. It was the beginning of Shazia’s isolation.

‘I became very fat because my mother-in-law insisted I eat rice and eggs daily,’ she told me. ‘I could feel the lumps in my flesh and my face was bloated. One day I decided to stand up to the old lady. I refused the rice. That night my husband came to my room and dragged me by my hair to where the old lady lay on her bed. He beat me and screamed that I’d made his mother ill by disobeying her. The family sat round pretending not to watch. The pain was terrible and the shame worse.’

From then on Shazia set about trying to find ways of getting out of the house and meeting other people. ‘I’m good at languages – I speak five already – so I found out about German evening classes.’ Shazia’s husband agreed to accompany her and, amazingly, his mother gave permission. But for one reason or another, Shazia herself was always prevented from going. And somehow the old woman always conspired to stop the couple sitting together or talking to each other. ‘I know she is keeping my husband from me. She wants me to leave. After all I’ve served my purpose. The family received a large dowry …’

Shazia now longs for Pakistan, for the busy, dusty bazaars where she could roam and haggle freely; for the little house she shared so happily with her husband; for the telegraph office from which she could ring her family in Lahore when she felt lonely.

‘But how could I go back, now? How could I leave my children behind? No, I'm waiting for the day when my husband might defy his mother and leave this house for good with me by his side …

Waiting is Shazia’s only option. But she states quite calmly that she is strong – and that waiting, patiently, is her strength.

Maria Naseem is a former NI staff member.

I think. by Martyn Turner

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