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BEING SINGLE IN PAKISTAN

February 11, 2018

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Illustration by Leea Contractor
Illustration by Leea Contractor

Na chaand rahay ga, na sitaray rahain gey
Kya hum saari zindagi kunwaray rahain gey?
Roz hotay haen hazaron nikah dunya main
Kya humari qismat main choaray rahaen gey?

[Neither will the moon survive nor will the stars/Will we remain bachelors for life?
Many relations are solemnized every day/But is our destiny only to have dried dates?]
~ Truck Poetry, Unknown

Love is in the air but a week before Valentine’s Day, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) has reminded broadcasters not to “promote” the international day of celebrating love. The original decision came last year after the Islamabad High Court ruled on a citizen’s petition to have Valentine’s Day banned. The court order prohibited the celebration of Valentine’s Day in public spaces and government offices.

But broadcasting is a money game. And the money tends to follow public demand, whatever that might be.

Going by last year, the smart money this year is on people spending money on gifts for their special someones. Flower sellers have started taking orders, new merchandise has hit gift spots, and restaurants are already making dinner reservations a week or so before Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day might well not be native to South Asia. And yet, there is a certain acceptance of celebrating February 14 as the international day of love. But it has evoked polar responses: while commercialization around February 14 has increased and finds new consumers, so too has the backlash. While some flaunt their heart-shaped balloons, others argue that we must commemorate the day as ‘Haya Day’ or the Day of Virtue.

The number of Pakistanis who are unmarried is constantly on the rise. But the issues they face ­— from social unacceptability to finding accomodation to finding places to interact safely with each other — are not being addressed by society or the state.

Notwithstanding the debate of love versus virtue, the singles population has gradually been nudging forward.

The census conducted in 1997 listed the married population as about 63 percent of those above the legal age of consent. Although 2017 results have yet to be completely collated and released, well-placed sources claim that the percentage of married people has gone down. The average age at which people are getting married has also gone up significantly, particularly among young women. Meanwhile, the divorced population, listed as 0.34 percent in 1998, has now increased to five or six percent. These outcomes will be formalised and released in April this year but all indicators point to a big rise in the number of Pakistani adults who are living as ‘singles’.

Clearly the singles population in Pakistan is swelling but is it ready to mingle?

ADULT AND ALONE

“It’s been a while since I have seen the sun set,” says Farzana Ali*, a 28-year-old factory worker. Every morning, Farzana leaves her house in Liaquatabad, Karachi promptly at eight, reaches her factory by nine, and stays at work at least till six. She works inside closed spaces, and by the time she leaves the factory, it is already dark outside. The eldest sister among eight siblings, her father passed away a few years ago. Ever since, she and her younger sister have been the breadwinners of the family.

“Something changes inside you when you first leave the comfort of your home,” says Farzana. “You become cynical, you expect the worse from others, and you don’t expect good things to happen to you.”

What Farzana refers to is the catcalling at the hands of neighbours who were once playmates. What makes it worse for her is the catcalling that her 21-year-old sister has to go through.

“Sometimes I am seen as too old by the boys hanging around the mohalla,” she says. “My sister becomes the more vulnerable target.”

And how does their mother take this?

“My mother often curses herself and then us,” murmurs Farzana. “Not because her daughters are responsible for running the household, but because she needs us to earn. In her ideal situation, we’d be married and our father would be alive.”

Farzana and her family have lived in the same mohalla for about three decades now. Familiarity should have bred some security, but after her father’s passing, the opposite has become true.

“One day I was walking home from the bus stop when a man on a motorbike, with a child in tow, groped me from behind,” she says. “It was only a matter of seconds, but I now walk on the extreme left on the pavement. I am scared of this happening again.”

And why does she feel she goes through this?

Even though I was raped, I couldn’t talk to my parents about what happened,” says Saira. “After all, they knew Wasim’s family and were hopeful that the two of us would hit it off and get married.”

“Because we don’t have an elder man in the house,” comes the solemn reply. “Or because we aren’t married,” she says after a pause.

Farzana has little time to meet other people even though she craves companionship. But like many others, women and men, the fight for everyday survival means that she is alone despite having loved ones around her.

HOUSING WOES

Those who have managed to move out of the family house don’t have it much easier. A recurring motif among single men and women living on their own is the difficulty of procuring rental accommodation.

“People are hesitant to rent out their space to a bachelor,” says Haider Ali from Lahore. “They think it will become a brothel, and there will be nothing but parties and coke and heroin going around. They think, pata nehin kya ho raha hoga! [who knows what all will be going on in their space!].”

Haider is a mid-career professional but isn’t married. When he first went out apartment hunting, he was shocked that single men are a no-no in the real estate market.

“The estate agent showed me dingy places,” says Haider, “or he would only show properties to me from the outside, saying the landlords probably won’t like a bachelor staying here. There is a bit of bias, against a single guy who’s not married but, ironically, if you’re willing to pay a certain amount, like 100,000 rupees a month for a one-bed flat, then there doesn’t seem to be any problem.”

Haider had a significant budget — 35,000 to 40,000 rupees — but he claims that he was limited to portions that were either referred by someone who knew him or his family. “It’s a bit unfair that you ask for that amount of money and then look at things this way..”

Saira Rehman* is a recent graduate who recently moved to Karachi from Faisalabad to join a multinational. Little did she realise how rigged the real estate market is against single women.

“Single women between the ages of 20 and 30 are a definite no,” says Hussain Anwar, a real estate broker in the Defence locality. “Neighbours don’t trust them at that age.”

Saira spent the first two months or so lodged at a friend’s house. Eventually she and two other women colleagues found a shared space that they rented from another divorced woman.

“We ran into one broker who raised the rental multiple times,” says Saira. “We had settled on a 25,000 rupee rent for a three bedroom near Bahadurabad, but when it was time to sign papers, he said that the rent had been raised to 45,000.”

It is for this reason that the process of subletting among women is popular across the city. If a woman manages to secure an apartment space, they tend to pass it on to other women or share with new women tenants.

“No, we don’t always know when someone is subletting a property,” says Hussain. “We only find out when they are moving out and someone else is moving in.”

OFFLINE, ONLINE

Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

In a different mohalla, young Shakeel Khan is preparing for a date. The woman he wants to see is a colleague at the school where he works. But seeing her in private is a different matter.

“Buhat paparr bailnay parrtay haen [one has to make a lot of effort],” he says.

Shakeel and his friend have decided to meet at a shopping mall. The arrangement is simple: Shakeel will not pick her up, she will get there on her own. Shakeel will not call on her cell phone, he’d meet her in the food court of the mall. And after window shopping, they’d have a bite of “mehngi” [expensive] ice-cream.

“She will wear a burqa,” he explains. “Even if you spot someone you know, you can always say that this is a pious lady who needed help or some other excuse. Nobody is really going to question you.”

Shopping malls are one of the few entertainment spaces left in the city. Indeed the last decade has seen entertainment spaces in cities shrink rapidly. Cinemas have either shut down or moved inside malls. Amusement parks have been reduced to rubble while open spaces have been taken over by plazas. And opportunities to meet and greet strangers, especially across the class divide, are now in great shortage.

“Jagah ka buhat masla hai [Space is a big issue],” laments Zohair Ali*, a young lawyer in his mid 20s. “Shopping malls are generally for hanging out, but for intimacy, you need a safe space.”

As a result, most interactions have moved online.

“On Facebook and apps such as Tinder,” says Zainab Mumtaz*, a marketing executive in her 30s. [See accompanying story Love in the Time of Tinder.]

As Zainab explains, the “happening” places of the 1990s and early 2000s have all deteriorated. Restaurants that once served young couples on a budget have closed down while the newer ones have become far too crowded. Life too has become faster and people are too preoccupied with their jobs and social commitments.

In comparison, Facebook interactions are a lot simpler — there is a profile page, interests are listed, and generally, peoples’ perspective on life can be understood with what they are sharing. A number of other social media apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter have also been pressed into service as ‘dating’ apps by those seeking to make a connection with new people.

And it works for some. But for many others, women in particular, the anonymity offered by the internet also comes with its own set of problems. Aside from the issue of safety, many men feel emboldened to make advances on these apps that they would simply never do in real life, which women often find off-putting and can be downright obscene.

In such a scenario, single people are in a fix: how do you meet new and interesting people, someone with whom you can find shared chemistry, and someone you can fall in love with?

“My group of friends is organising a singles meet-up,” says Zainab. Admittedly this will be an upper middle-class setting, with the hosts hopeful of a high turnout.

But while such events are a welcome addition, blind dates through “rishta aunties” have been in vogue for a while now. Because young people are often short on time, a blind date is organised for them with their families’ consent.

“Usually in a public or crowded place,” says Rehana Wasim*, a 28-year-old telecom executive. “You can make a quick getaway if the date isn’t going too well without the hassle of any embarrassment.”

The rishta aunties might work for some, but a few have had terrible experiences with these too.

Amina Hakim* is a 33-year-old doctor. She met a banker named Wasim Khan* through a rishta aunty and things seemed to be going well.

“It was our fourth date and we ended up at his apartment,” says Amina. “We were there to watch a movie and perhaps kiss in privacy. But he didn’t stop at kissing. I lost my virginity at his place and not because I wanted to.”

For single women such as Amina, safety is a huge concern.

“Even though I was raped, I couldn’t talk to my parents about what happened,” she says. “After all, they knew Wasim’s family and were hopeful that the two of us would hit it off and get married.”

It is for this reason that Amina never went on another blind date.

“My parents often ask me what went wrong with Wasim, how am I supposed to tell them the truth?”

TRUTH AND DESIRE

In many middle-class households, a crisis is brewing: women don’t want to get married young and men are more interested in casual hookups than committed relationships. Pressured from all quarters, single people are often forced to commit to relationships that are without love or chemistry.

“My mother has been arranging blind dates for me,” explains Zainab Ansari*, a 28-year-old sales executive. “Every time around, I don’t like the man she has chosen. And when I return home to tell her that, I am chided for being single and unattractive.”

Indeed in traditional households across the country, being single is frowned upon. Much of it has to do with “loag kya kahain gey” but as the (forthcoming) census results show, the age at which people are getting married in increasing. And because they know their mind a little better by then, divorces too have increased.

“In Islamabad, a man can only become a gentleman when he gets married,” says Safdar Abbas*, a 32-year-old employed at a telecom company. It’s no secret that, rightly or wrongly, many companies also look at married people as more stable employees, perhaps because the assumption is that the responsibility of family is a constraint on behaviour.

Safdar’s case in interesting because he “fled” Karachi in order to avoid his mother’s taunts about being unmarried. “She wanted grandchildren,” he says. But even in Islamabad, he could not escape the glare of scrutiny in his social circle.

“My friends are not your NGO-types,” he says. “I am fairly conservative and my friends too. Whenever I visit their homes, the question [about marriage] is put to me. One aunty even went as far as to arrange a blind date in her house with her niece.”

The NGO-types, too, in Islamabad are not having an easy time being single. These folks typically have higher ages at which they get married but often enough, they find companionship inside their circles. Contrary to popular perception, however, they too are the targets of family and social pressure.

“Having led field operations for the past five years, I am one of the most-sought-after researchers in my field,” says Aliya Zaidi*, a 29-year-old woman working at an international NGO in Islamabad. “My mother still tells me that the money that I earn has little value. What is most valuable in her dictionary is mera ghar bus jayay [that I settle down].”

SAFETY AND SECURITY

New apps have made it possible for people to travel across the city at cheaper and affordable rates. Where once women were terrified of travelling in buses and cabs, many have found new services such as Careem and Uber to be godsends. For even cheaper ways to travel, some opt for Bykea, the motorbike equivalent of Careem and Uber.

“Sitting on a bike with a stranger makes me queasy,” says Kulsoom Alam, a 34-year-old pharmacist. “One man actually pushed a friend of mine off the bike because she was fat and was occupying too much of the space on the seat.”

This is the more sanitized end of the spectrum.

“A few years ago, a case was reported where someone infiltrated an app meant for folks who are not straight, met them, raped them and then killed them,” explains Asad Alavi, a journalist. “This was reported on in the international press but the local press didn’t pick the story up.”

The incident sent shockwaves among those privy to the case. Certainly the issue of safety is something that marginalized communities such as the LGBT — who are outside the traditional norms of marriage anyway — have to deal with on a constant basis.

“Most profiles on Grindr [a dating app for non-heterosexuals] do not have a mug shot on their profiles,” explains Asad. “The profile picture might be an impression of their body or a piece of abstract art. From there, you can send a private message and pictures to the person of interest and take it from there.”

Even Aliya tends to inform at least three friends before going out with a stranger.

“I keep my location always switched on in my phone,” she says, “because that way, at least my friends can track my whereabouts. If I am at some place where I am not supposed to be, they always call and check.”

“I think young men aren’t taught to behave with women,” says Zainab. “They are generally lost when it comes to romance or intimacy. What many single men are interested in is either a cup of coffee or a quickie. And those who enter a relationship are often clueless about what love means and what intimacy entails.”


As the Islamabad High Court order to PEMRA indicates, there are many in Pakistan who believe the problem lies solely with the media promoting imported concepts of social norms. However, what these people fail to acknowledge is the changing demography of the country as well as social trends that have evolved independent of the recent commercial promotion of events such as Valentine’s Day.

It is not Valentine’s Day and its coverage on the media that has been responsible for the population boom in Pakistan over the last 70 years. Nor is it Valentine’s Day or the media that is forcing more and more women to enter the workforce, for young men and women to delay marriage or for the increase in divorce rates. Simply put, turning a blind eye to the growing numbers of single men and women in society, with all their social and sexual issues, will not make the problems go away.

For large swathes of single people, the future is now.

*Names changed to protect privacy and identity

Additional reporting by Xari Jalil
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2018