Updated: May 3, 2021
The day I left Karachi to come back to Eindhoven, Netherlands, I walked into Bank Al Habib to deposit some checks into my account. As I entered the bank, a bank representative approached me and asked if he could help me. When I told him that I am there to deposit some checks, he directed me to a bank officer’s desk and instructed him to deposit my checks for me. The bank officer filled in my details on a deposit slip, asked me to sign it, walked it to the teller behind the counter, deposited the checks for me and brought me the deposit receipt. During all this time men were standing in line, conducting their business by themselves.
Two days before this incident, I had gone to University of Karachi to pick up some documents and back issues of a scientific journal from a male faculty member at UoK. Even though I insisted that I can carry the back issues, he decided to carry them for me to the car, telling me they were too heavy for me. My visit to Karachi this time and all other previous visits are filled with examples like these, where I am told that I cannot do something because I am a woman. That I am too weak, that I don’t know how it is done, that I do not have the experience to do certain things. Earlier this year, I was sitting in an apartment in Delft, Netherlands with four other women of Pakistani origin discussing challenges Pakistani women face after moving to Netherlands. The goal was to organise an event, under the aegis of Overseas Progressive Pakistanis, highlighting these challenges. Among a host of issues revealed during this discussion, we decided to focus on integration of Pakistani women in Dutch society. That discussion made me think about my own integration into the societies of the countries I have lived in besides Pakistan. United States of America, Norway and now Netherlands. I think of integration as ability to navigate the logistics of daily life in a foreign country, like going into a bank and performing a transaction unassisted, calling up your doctor and making an appointment, getting groceries from a grocery store, or the ability to drive or take the transit system unassisted. Performing the logistics of your life.
The bank officer who was preparing my deposit slip for me didn’t know that I have lived in four different countries and that I have bank accounts in all of them. That in three out of those four countries I perform all sorts of banking activities successfully, without any help. The faculty member at UoK doesn’t know that just a couple of years ago when I lived in Oslo, I hauled bags of whole week’s worth of groceries along with my two toddlers, up three flights of stairs, without any help, all by myself. This after walking about two kilometres (some of it uphill) pushing my kids and my shopping on the kids stroller. People who challenge my abilities, physical or intellectual do not know that I lived as a single woman in America for more than fifteen years where I did all of life’s duties unassisted. And that I have lived outside Pakistan for more than 25 years and have done things by myself to sustain an active life.
Sitting at the bank waiting for my checks to be deposited for me I started thinking, by my definition, Pakistani women are not integrated into their own society. They do not perform so many tasks unassisted. If that is the case, what is the meaning of integration? When women of Pakistan who are so used to being “taken care of” leave their society and start living in one where they are expected to be a more active participant, how do they navigate it?