Into the Box, or Else…A comprehensive guide to female stereotypes in Pakistan

Posted on November 2, 2007
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, Society, Women
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Raza Rumi

The other day when my spouse complained for the umpteenth time about the peculiar attitudes of men towards their female counterparts in Pakistani workplaces, I had no option but to be blunt.

“You need to get real,” I yelled. “You must shed all notions of human complexity when dealing with the Pakistani male. He’s a simple and two-dimensional being; stop attributing more depth than the poor guy is endowed with.”



It is a shame that my wife, who has now worked for a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque organisation for a decade, has still not learnt the art of dealing with middle class men.
I reminded her of an eminent intellectual’s well-coined phrase: male middle class Muslim (MMM) from the subcontinent. Building on the MMM coinage, I have come up with some kosher categories of women in the psychoanalytic landscape of the post-Neanderthal male residing in this part of Mother Earth.The Mother Earth saga is deeply rooted in our collective ethos. The evolution of a mother-son relationship in infancy casts a heavy shadow on the ‘maleness’ of the young boy. Exposed only to the tenderness and sensuousness of motherly affection in early years, the Pakistani male converts the father figure into an imagined distant and powerful being, and when he grows up, machismo is the ultimate strategy of shunning all that is feminine (except of course the mother). This in part explains the search for mothers in all women, the mother-son bonding; and the burden of Pakistani females to be a mother for socio-cultural elevation. I am, of course, inspired by S Zulfiqar Gillani, a notable Pakistani psychologist who has elaborated his arguments in a book he co-edited titled Power and Civil Society in Pakistan . Readers can refer to it at their peril.

This digression was to set the tone for the kosher boxes of womanhood for the bulk of the MMM. . .

Motherly nurturing type: This is usually the marriage material: a great cook, cleaner, dhoban and ayah all rolled into one. A large number of professional degree holding women who get married after gaining subsidised education at taxpayers’ expense fall into this category. Mothers and sons often hunt for such maids in Manhattan to make the household the promised janat without the hisaab kitaab ! Usually, such good girls are also pretty boring and/or made to nourish the domestic vegetable gardens. Take for example the expatriates in the West whose wives often exclaim: “ mein tau in ko paani ka glass bhee naheen uthanay deti .” Of course, the notion that women love shopping is another myth perpetrated by such moms and they avoid ‘bad society’ and ‘company’ like the plague.

Vulnerable tear jerker savitri: Inspired by the 18th and 19th century classification of South Asian women, this is the ideal woman. Helpless and often clueless, she needs direction and protection. Our brethren love to patronise her, reminiscent as she is of the tragic suffering heroines of our pop-lore. It is a separate matter that naik parveen might be taking them for a joyride! One version, though more soulful than the mainstream type, was Roohi Bano on PTV, overlaid with heavy intellectual content courtesy the fanciful dialogue of our drama [over]writers.

Flirty courtesan Ada: A modern avatar of Umrao Jaan, the challoo women of the Arabian nights, tilism-i-hoshruba , these cocky babes never lose their fascination. Ultimate pleasure givers and seekers, they reinvigorate the kama sutra age and pander to an age-old, not-too-forgotten memory of someone who knows how to play and be played with. In worldly matters, the success rate of such damsels is quite high. Even though mothers and aunts forbid our MMM honchos to marry them, they are good workplace mates and are often a gateway to society’s ladder.

Westernised/NGO type: Decried by the Urdu press and mullahs, the fashionable, Westernised NGO activist type is another danger zone. She is too much of a ‘man’ and ‘ be – haya ’ to be feminine. Such stereotyping started in the 1980s when a glimpse of the women’s movement was witnessed in urban centres. PTV characterised the social worker begums much earlier but the opprobrium was not as severe until the hudood -mongers thought that such women were a threat to the social fabric of paradise that was Pakistan.

Chanchal -love-struck: Idealised by the PTV of the 1970s and 80s, this is an attractive, urbane (often brainless) fun type that fascinates our adventurous and experimental males who secretly adore the sense of humour that they might be devoid of in real life. The usual PTV typology was a serious, humourless hero who would long for the chanchal but refuse to admit it until the chanchal ’s parents decided to marry her off to someone else. Tomboys of yore and several graduates of Lahore’s premier women’s colleges were identifiable with this category. They also have a platonic proclivity to flirt with tailors and bosses alike.

Rich and powerful father’s daughter: Another secret attraction for a lot of middle class men has been – and continues to be – the spoilt daughter of an influential family, who will bring the forbidden fruits of fame, wealth and connections without the hard work. Here, all ingrained values and preferences are subjected to a willing suspension of disbelief and it is expected that over time, all girls are after all “mould-able and can be moulded.” In the bargain, the good old boys take some ***t and swallow their egos – for what this union represents is association with the ‘ultimately masculine’ power that comes from the background of the spouse. These are hotly pursued paths of civil servants and other state minions across South Asia.

The maid servant: The household bua or naukrani is a bona fide, acceptable category of women. Selfless, slavish and easy to exploit are the defining characteristics. This is the platonic, non-sexual object of the male fantasy that may sometimes descend into a not so platonic relationship in special cases. However, this is also an extension of the mother-nurturer image and an essential component of an ideal wife. PTV romances play on this and project the loyalty virtue of the household maid to the hilt.

“Sister:” The pinnacle of honour and a legitimate case for protective custody is the sister type. Barring the incest problem that the leading NGO Sahil keeps flashing in the media, this is a category popularised and mystified by popular lore, including the cinema. No wonder defiling a sister is a great insult immortalised by the famous Punjabi swearword that has been readily accepted (unlike other Punjabi items) by most sub-nationalities across South Asia. The love element dwindles through the urge to patronise and protect this species.

Overeducated: The lot that learns to think, rationalise and argue is not to be dealt with. Immediate insecurity and paranoia turns attention towards looks and character for, if either is found lacking, such types can easily be discounted and fitted into the boxes above. The warped sense of masculinity is shaken to its core during one-to-one encounters. No wonder the lovely term ‘over-age’ is used as a euphemism for a thinking woman perceived as destined to be a ‘spinster.’

These stereotypes are by no means comprehensive and many readers would trash them as subjective. But that is exactly what they are: subjective, like much of life and living! Created to engage my spouse (and deflect her misery), my question was whether she fitted into any of these categories; her answer was in the negative.

“There you go,” I said, “fit yourself in a box or suffer the fate of individuality like many women of all classes across Pakistan.”

We are a few light years away from accepting thinking individuals and out-of-the-box women.

My wife wholeheartedly agreed with me when she detected the unwitting compliment that I had paid to her.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Friday Times, Lahore.

40 responses to “Into the Box, or Else…A comprehensive guide to female stereotypes in Pakistan

  1. Raza Rumi says:

    Shahbaz: No worries – you elaborated your first comment and let me make a few observations here (even though given the emergency we may have larger issues at hand) –

    The way classes are formed and act are sociological realities. Let me assure you that the upper or lower classes have their own definition of morality even though the educated middle classes define the mainstream trends and attitudes. Women who work in the fields in the rural areas face another kind of exploitation (as do the men-folk) but the issues highlighted above mostly deal with the perceptions that literature, media, arts create – and who are the writers, artists and intellectuals? Surely neither the industrialists/feudals or the working classes (with exceptions of course).
    I do not want readers to agree with me – this was a subjective piece but let me make a simple point: such stereotypes are imperceptibly developed in our (male) psyche and often we keep on reinfocing them
    Apologies if I came across as a classist – there was no mention of lower or higher – the article focussed on the middle layer that I come from and that my wife had to deal with in her work-place all the time – simply that we are from this particular segment and interact with them in our personal and professional lives….

  2. Shahbaz Khan says:

    Oops! It appears that Mr. Rumi responded to my first comment while I was writing the second one. Apologies for repeating myself sir.

  3. Shahbaz Khan says:

    Without offending sensitive minds, I would like to add that Pakistani women are as much commitment-oriented as Pakistani men and see a potential husband in every male (unless the lady is already committed). My point is that even though this article is written in a humorous tone, it reeks of class difference and does not point towards the real cause of the problem, namely the lack of proper education. Without proper upbringing, a man from “upper class” is as likely to act in an unsensitive manner towards women as a man from middle or lower class. Some of us might agree that sometimes poor people (or “lower-class” men according this article’s terminology) are much more respectful towards the fair sex than “upper-class” men.

  4. Raza Rumi says:

    Shahbaz: many thanks for the comment – your suggestion is pertinent – will do another one with UMs as the subject :)

    Babar: thanks

    Omer: I fully agree with you – liked the way you put it:
    “My conviction is the same average Pakistani would act very differently if provided with a sense of social security and a free society”

    this is the point – it has to do with the culture, society and the household dynamics and as they change (they are in urban Pakistan), such attitudes will also change

    salaams to all

  5. Rafay Kashmiri says:

    Reza Rumi,

    @KhairulBashar Siddiqui,

    your last comment could’nt make me resist saying this
    (with your permission)

    Arz kia hay:

    Bashar ki khair iss may hay, karay wo bandagi Raab ki

    Wagarna Shamet-e-amaal aurat hi say hay KhairulBashar ki

    (Daad chahon ga)

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