Two years ago, after landing a job at a digital agency, Marium* moved to Lahore from Islamabad. With the fervent vision of a fresh grad, she was geared to start her career.
Through a referral, Marium found a shared space as a paying guest. But with no signed contract and only a mattress in the room to sleep on for a rent of 10,000 rupees each with her roommate, Marium was looking for a better option within six months. She soon realised that searching for a home away from home was a full time project.
Like her, many millennial women are moving cities for better education or career opportunities. Moving to a bigger city often means more job options and better pay scales. A rising number of young working women aged between 25 to 35 years are willing to experience home away from home, if it is going to empower them.
But in a society that traditionally does not support an independent working woman, let alone one who wants to live away from her family, it is not easy to find safe and comfortable living options for these women, who single-handedly deal with day-to-day issues of the modern urban lifestyle.
Women go through referrals, classified pages, real-estate agents and Facebook pages dedicated to accommodation for working women in the major cities of Pakistan. Facebook is the preferred choice for many, as it is convenient, while the discussion between both parties also remains on record.
As more women move cities for education and job opportunities, a lack of safe living options and orthodox mindsets get in the way
Sadia* who is in her late 20s, moved to Islamabad from Karachi, after securing a job in the development sector. “I prefer Facebook because you can skip estate agents who can’t always be trusted,” she says.
“Some real estate websites showed misleading pictures of apartments as nice and new, which turned out to be shabby in reality,” says Marium.
“They wanted me to physically visit the premises on a short notice and would avoid sharing photos of the place,” says Aisha* who runs a digital agency. After over two months of physical search, when she and her colleague finally found a furnished place in Defence, Lahore, for a rent of 16,000 rupees each, another challenge awaited them.
“We were required to present a male family member or two male witnesses to the landlord,” says Aisha. “It was difficult for us to do that in a new city, especially with no relatives living there. With my CNIC and passport to show, and with me paying the rent, the requirement seemed ridiculous.”
Finally, Aisha presented a male relative who, in turn, had to present his own house documents before Aisha could become a tenant.
Sadia feels that a woman living independently in our country is vulnerable, no matter which city she lives in. “It is because we need solid laws to protect women, and their awareness and implementation too,” she says.
When Afshan* was transferred from Karachi to Sukkur, her company helped her relocate, but she felt that her life became restricted in the small city.
“I needed a new dress, so I casually stepped out on the weekend, just as I would in Karachi,” she says. “Instead of a dress, I got a stalker who tried sharing his contact details with me. Much to my horror, he appeared outside my home the following day too.”
Scarred by this episode, instead of finding recreation in Sukkur on the weekend, Afshan opts for visiting her family in Karachi, after an eight-hour drive. “But it is reassuring that my landlady always has my back when it comes to nonsense from outsiders,” she says. “It makes me feel relatively safe in a new city.”
Marium and her roommate were declined accommodation several times for not only being single women, but also for being alumni from a university that was perceived to be ‘too liberal’. “I have many piercings so a lot of people rejected us because my trendy appearance might have threatened them in some way,” she says, shrugging.
Home-owners often have certain stringent rules and regulations for their female tenants. Male friends are not allowed, female friends can’t stay overnight, there is a curfew at midnight, ID cards of paying guests plus their parents are required along with a list of potential visitors, and even male siblings cannot stay over.
Supportive of his daughter’s decision to move from Thatta to Karachi for her studies, Mehreen’s* father helped her in her house hunt. But Fatima*, an IT specialist, has seen a different perspective.
“Many landlords are still averse to renting homes to single girls,” she says. “They assume we are rebellious girls who have fought with their parents to move out and ‘misuse’ freedom.
“Even though we were a bunch of girls sharing housekeeping costs and the rent of a house in a family-oriented, residential area, people were suspicious about us being escorts, or call girls. Even women stared at us with a certain ‘judgy’ look of distaste. Why is there a general misogyny in everyone’s tone and demeanour when you are a decent-looking single woman, trying to make ends meet?”
“Even if you are a purdah-observing, single, middle-aged woman living alone, people will judge you,” remarks Aisha.
Samreen* moved to Karachi from Hyderabad for her MBA. Living in a hostel in Clifton didn’t work out for her because she had her classes late in the evening, while the hostel required her to be in earlier.
“I also lived in a shared villa with 22 other girls,” Samreen recalls. “Clothes disappeared from the laundry, food items vanished from the fridge and we never found out who the thief was.”
She now lives as a paying guest in Clifton, paying more rent than she paid for the shared space. “I have a somewhat amicable arrangement with the landlady,” she says. “It is vital to adapt to each other’s personality to avoid conflict.”
As per the data by World Bank, only 20.53 percent of women are part of the labour force in Pakistan while, according to Gallup, only 40 percent of women with a Master’s degree are employed.
As reported by Dawn, women’s participation in the labour force is actually declining, as it dropped from 23.8pc in 2016 to 22.2pc in 2020. Yet, working women are increasingly visible — in restaurants, malls, banks, in private sector and in government offices, far more than in their mothers’ or grandmothers’ generations.
For this female workforce, hostels and safe housing, and better commute options for women are the need of the hour. Also needed are more opportunities for them to learn to ride motorbikes, self-defence classes and law awareness, so that they become aware of their rights and know the help options available to them. Above all, employer support is of utmost importance in the case of relocation.
From selecting a husband, to travelling, to career and living choices, today’s women want to be their own decision-makers. It’s about time their independence is accepted as a fact.
The writer is a communications professional, an artist and a wildlife photographer.
She can be reached at email@example.com
**Name changed to protect privacy*
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 9th, 2022