Marriage or a career? (Published in The Citizen, India)

It’s 2014 and winters in India and Pakistan are still, and only reserved for weddings. Attending 3-4 of them each night isn’t an uncommon reality, in fact, most offices slow down, venues are booked and women have taken off from work for at least a month to prepare themselves for this festive season. To most, this is not deemed as an unnecessary intermission from real life, but as a necessary reason to take leave from work and routine.

Most women, having studied overseas in the likes of ivy leagues and other prestigious universities, are either forced to, or choose to return home after graduation to settle back into desi life. Granted, international students face a most tedious task of securing a job overseas, I’m not sure that’s license to quit trying and open a baking factory inside their homes instead. Our twenties are meant to be the most formative years of our lives; professionally and personally. However, as soon as the plane lands on South Asian soil, out go the well-witted, aspirational hopes, resulting in a desperate need to ‘fit back in’ to what was once home.

This certainly does not apply to all females having secured a foreign education. In fact, there are those exceptional few who wake up extra early to get their online masters work in, spend the next ten hours at office and return home just in time to eat a meal with their parents. But these ladies are numbered, few and far between. One cannot hold a singular reason accountable for the demise of professional aspirations in women; in fact, society and familial pressures go hand-in-hand with the lack of opportunities and hesitant government investments in females.

Rich in Eastern traditions, India and Pakistan face modernization in perpetual tidal flows. There’s a moment of epiphany, where minds are liberated and varied modern behaviors accepted, almost immediately followed by a backlash where the elders in society reprimand such progress.Since women’s domesticated duties are regarded with great dignity and honor, breaking away from the chains of domestication is a most tedious process. Women have to make evident that they intend on remaining dignified in the field; that their absence from home in order to work is not their way of necessarily rebelling against the values of honor, but in fact, a way to dignify what they have been born with: brains.

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There are enough examples in the world today that show that women can both manage their households and their careers. That no longer holds as a valid argument, when husbands or the elderly remark on the wife’s ‘fast’ ways. Women no longer need to settle for baking cakes and cookies, spending endless hours at beauty salons, painting and re-painting their nails, attending lunches and dinners, eagerly awaiting their husband’s return with a wide array of foods dressing the dinner table.

Unfortunately, this back and forth pendulum of progress tends to leave the youth with an embittered sense of identity. “Na yahan kay, na vahan kay”, meaning they don’t quite belong to the east nor the west and are caught in between. It’s almost as if not agreeing with the society on marriage makes things worse. It would be easier to pretend to agree, so as to not receive disapproving evaluations by the rest of society. For women, entering their twenties turns into a race for marriage, instead of a race to nurture their ambitions. When most of your friends around you are engaged by the age 25, your 27th birthday as a single lady calls for much alarm. This concern may not be made explicit by friends, but what’s worse; it is conveyed in a most passive-aggressive and implicit fashion; as if your cause is so lost that even mentioning it would be a sin. These cultures are certainly proud of well-established women, but are prouder of trophy wives.

But hold on. We cannot grant full credit for the oppression of women to society and traditional values only. The government, along with institutions is most definitely responsible as well. It’s not as if there are ample opportunities in varied industries that will dissuade women from early marriage and encourage them to use their brain and talents. First, they would have to prove that they are capable of work. Second, their probation period is mostly perpetual. Third, they would have to struggle to find an opportunity, let alone the right kind of opportunity. Fourth, if married, they would have to think of their husband’s needs and requirements. Fifth, if married with kids, they would be forced to think ten times whether the job is more important than being present for every time the child ate, walked or slept. If the institutions would at least remove the third obstacle, that of having to drill through mines to find an opportunity, that could serve as a most robust and hopeful start.

Alas, one can only hope that the smell of freshly baked cupcakes will one day not be enough for most women. The dream will not only be of mastering domestication, but skillfully utilizing a vital organ, that of the brain. This will not only empower women to serve themselves better, but will over time enable societies to grow substantially and translate into national development. Imagine mother’s being diligently literate and having had work experience raising children at home. The likelihood of these children growing up to enter professional fields is enough to want to open an all-women’s bank right away.