Date: January 13, 2013
This one is about the domestic help at my grandparent’s house, Nusrat. She, like Maria, is one of many Pakistani women who work to support their families. But her story is slightly different. Nusrat, whose name means “the helper” is working hard to not only feed her kids but also educate them.
One day, I decided to follow Nusrat around the house as she worked on her chores. It was a sunny day and I was at home with my aunt. The power had gone out for one hour, as it does every two hours over there so the house was calm and quiet. I started by asking for her permission to write her story and take her photograph. She started smiling and said “Sure, why not!” (in Urdu, of course).
Nusrat has no idea when she was born, just that she was about 14 when she got married. She was born in Mardan, a town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. She migrated to Karachi, Pakistan shortly after getting married. Karachi is a long way and a completely different setting from her hometown of Mardan, but Nusrat said that she enjoyed her time in the Sindhi port city. She said that the air in Karachi was a lot better and the lifestyle was faster paced. According to Nusrat, she had little to worry about in Karachi, she felt more relaxed there.
Nusrat identifies herself as a Pathan, someone from the KPK who speaks Pashto, but because she has spent a long time in Karachi and now Rawalpindi, she can speak Urdu very well. She has five children, four sons and one daughter:
- Adil – son, 18 years old – works as a driver
- Salman – son, 14 years old – works as a tailor
- Nauman – son, 12 years old – student
- Layba – daughter, 10 years old – student
- Sameer – son, 8 years old – student
Next, I asked her questions I was most curious about but I was slightly nervous because of the sensitivity of the topic – women’s rights and status in Pakistan. So I started by testing the waters and asked, “Nusrat, do you do parda?”
Parda is an Urdu/Farsi word that literally means “curtain” but can be used to mean veil or a cover worn by a person. In Islam, men and women are both asked to cover their bodies. For women, the parda includes covering their head with a hijab, or headscarf; basically, only the face can be shown. While it is not required in the religion, some women cover their face revealing only their eyes (called niqab) or cover their entire face with a see-thru veil that allows them to see the outside but people cannot see them (called burqah).
The matter of parda is one that is religious, cultural, but also personal; therefore, it is much debated and highly sensitive.
“Mein parda karti hu (I stay in parda)….” Nusrat took a long pause to think and continued, “aur mujhay acha lagta hai (and I like it).”
I asked her if she chose to cover and how much she covers and she told me that she covers because her husband asked her to, otherwise she would not be allowed to work.
I hesitantly continued, “Would you cover if your husband did not ask you to?”
Nusrat said, with such certainty that I was surprised she didn’t wait to think this one through, “Yes, I would, because I feel safe and protected with my chador over my head.”
Chador is like a big, long shawl or scarf you can put loosely around your body and/or head; it is a traditional item of clothing that women in Pakistan wear with their outfits. So I asked her, when she leaves her home what kind of parda does she prefer to do? Does she wear a tight headscarf or a burqa or a niqab, or just her regular clothes with a chador wrapped around her?
So, she started to tell me that in Mardan the Pathan women are expected to wear a burqa or niqab. A woman cannot leave without being fully covered and escorted by a male family member. She said that she likes covering but she does not like to cover like the women in her family/in Mardan and her husband supports her. She only wears a loose chador that covers most of her head and wraps around her.
Nusrat started to laugh and joked that when she goes back home, the women of her town look at her say, “Oh Nusrat! You’ve become so liberal, like a city girl!” and how many of them openly judge her. But Nusrat does not care for them because she does not cover to please anyone… she covers for her own self, because of her husband’s wish, and because of her religious belief. She also said that living in cities amongst diverse groups of people has taught her a lot about how moderate and tolerant Islam is and how so many people have distorted its teachings.
Continuing on, I inquired if Nusrat ever felt harassed or discriminated against as a woman? She answered with a negative saying that, once again, when she’s in parda she feels safe and respected. She said that she has never felt like an unequal because she was a woman.
At this point, this interview was turning out to be different than what I expected. I was glad that Nusrat had an open mind.
Nusrat’s husband (whose name I failed to ask!) works in a farmer’s market about twenty minutes away from Rawalpindi. He does not have a problem with his wife working as domestic help in people’s homes but he does not like her working in more than two houses at a time. He feels that as a husband, father, and the man of the house it’s his responsibility to make the money in the house; but if Nusrat wants to work to help pay for their children’s education, she can. There is, however, one condition: he must go meet the family for whom she will be working and approve of them. To me, that’s not an unreasonable condition. Nusrat said he just wants to make sure that the family is a good family who will not misuse her. He had approved my grandparents and their next-door neighbor so that is where she has been working. She added that she was very happy with both these families because they were good to her.
This was the cue for me to ask her about her and her children’s education. She said that she doesn’t remember going to school, maybe she went to grade school? But she did say that she is self-taught. Nusrat said that she learned some reading and writing from her children after they went to school and other general knowledge things from the T.V. Because her husband is also not educated, Nusrat takes care of the bills and doctors visits. She said she learned how to read medicine labels and what vaccinations her kids had to have. Basically, she handles the finances of the home!
“Mein apni beti ko parhanay kay liye kaam karti hu. Mera khwab hai woh par-likh jaye.” (I am working to pay for my daughter’s schooling. It’s my dream that she is educated). I asked her, “Why?” and she said, “Because if I was not knowledgeable my household would be a mess; its important for the woman and mother to be educated.” And Nusrat just kept surprising me again and again with her liberalism. She supported education for girls, unlike her hometown of Mardan.
Funnily, when I asked her what about your sons’ education? She answered nonchalantly, “It’s not important for a boy to go to school. He should know how to work tools and earn the money.” At this I laughed—a lot. What an astoundingly hilarious woman! She didn’t understand what was so comical so I explained to her that usually people would support a boy’s education over a girl’s but her views were so different; maybe, because she was a woman? Nonetheless, I told her that I applaud her efforts and encouraged her to send her daughter as well as her sons to school.
Then I questioned her more about her children. She said her oldest son, Adil was engaged at 16 to his cousin but she will not let him marry until he is 20 years old. She said that because he had dropped out of school, he had been working as a private driver for a family. She would not let him marry until he had saved up enough money and also because she felt 20 was a good age. Her fourteen-year-old old son, Salman attends a private school and works as an aid with the local tailor (who also happens to be the tailor I get my Pakistani clothes made from).
Me: “Why does he get the privilege of attending a private school whereas your daughter, Layba (10) and son, Nauman (12) go to public institutions?”
Her: “He works hard and pays some of his fees and for books. He deserves it because he really wants to be something big one day. Did you know he knows English? They teach him that at his school. “
- Salman’s tuition fees = 2,100 Rupees/month (about $20 USD) + the cost of books
Layba and Nauman go to government-funded public schools and there’s not much to say about them except that they are not good. The public school system in Pakistan is a tragedy, but I guess some schooling is better than no schooling. Nusrat plans on sending them two private schools once they get to high school or if their income increases. While we were discussing education, she suddenly remembered something and with a disgusted look on her face she said, “Aap ko pata hai, meri saas kiya bolti? (Do you know what my mother-in-law says to me?). I felt that this was one was going to be an amusing one because of the whole mother and daughter-in-law situation. I thought maybe she was about to vent some feelings about drama. But what Nusrat told me outraged my aunt and I who had been quietly listening through the entire interview. Nusrat’s mother-in-law wants to wed her ten-years-old daughter to a 25 years old cousin in Mardan! But, Nusrat being the progressive woman that she was (and a little feisty, I might add) strictly told her off. She said, “I will not marry off my daughter to an illiterate man who is fifteen years older than her. My daughter will go to college first and then I will think about her marriage. I told my mother-in-law don’t even lay your eyes on my daughter, it’s not for you to decide!” Bravo Nusrat, bravo! I wish and hope that there are more girls, women, wives, and mothers like you in this world.
After spending a long time convincing Nusrat even more as to why her children’s education was so important, we informed her of women’s rights in Pakistan and in Islam.
There’s a lot more I learned about Nusrat over the 20 days I spent in Pakistan but there is only so much I can blog about.
She was a phenomenal woman.
Hardworking, modest, liberal, progressive, brave, sassy, etc.
The day before I left, she said something to me that was really sweet and I won’t forget (in her broken Urdu).
- Nusrat: “Aik din reh gaya hai tum log ka?” (One day left for you guys?)
- Me: “Mhmm, hum yaad ayein gey?” (Will you miss us?)
- Nusrat: “Haan, tum log bura log nahi ho, iss liye yaad aye ga. Buhat thoray din kay liye aye thay tum.” (Yeah, you guys are not bad people so I will miss you. You only came for a few days).
- Me: “Haan, aab aap ka kaam kam ho jaye ga!” (Yeah, but now your work load will decrease!)
- Her: “Koi baat nahi, mujay acha lagta tha tumara kaam karna.” (It’s okay, I liked working for you guys).
I had explained to Nusrat the purpose of my interview and had asked if I could photograph her. I told her all about the Internet and how it is the Wild West and her picture would be online for the world to see, so she asked that her face not be shown. She wanted to take the niqab so only her eyes are visible to the world.
They say eyes are the gateway to the soul, so what do you see?
As I finished photographing her (she was very shy), she looked at my aunt with a big smile and said, “You gave me this outfit, remember? It’s my favorite color.” It’s my favorite color, too, Nusrat.
Nusrat is in her 30s but I would have never guessed…she looks like she is in her 40s. Her face has many more wrinkles than a woman her age should and she also has skin discoloration. All the impoverished people I met had similar physical features, they aged too early, yet they all were beautiful in their own way.
Camera: Nikon D5200
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