Part I: “It’s Suffocating” When Young Women From South East Asia Hit A Cultural Wall

Marlowsphere (Blog #154)

Pakistan, literacy, Women, IndependenceQuestion: 

What happens when a young person, especially a young female person from a conservative South East Asia family and country, comes to study at a college in the United States where the values concerning male and female roles, dating and marriage are out of step with the more liberal values surrounding male and female roles, dating and marriage in many American colleges?


They hit a cultural wall, not necessarily with their new found student peers, but with their own family and country-of-origin traditions.

It is a difficult and stressful situation for the female student. On the one hand, the female student wants to do well and achieve a higher learning status. On the other hand, the parents, especially the fathers, are more concerned about marrying the daughter off, regardless of the daughter’s intellectual potential and prowess. It is a about individual freedom of expression vs. adherence to entrenched adherence to hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of immovable cultural traditions.

This cultural conflict of values—essentially a double standard: one for male and one for female with South Asian backgrounds—was brought home to me late last year when one of my students who is Pakistani approached me seeking help with this familiar story. It is made worse by the context of the pandemic. Many people from this region of the world believe the COVID-19 vaccine is for controlling people.

There is a strong correlation between these “beliefs” and illiteracy. Pakistan—a nuclear-armed nation—has a literacy rate of about 62 percent—out of 227 million people. This means millions of Pakistanis are illiterate, especially women. Innovation, for example, in Pakistan is very low. Little is invested in education.

What follows is the interview I conducted with this student. Her name has been changed to “female student” (and abbreviated to FS:) to protect her from possible harmful consequences meted out by her parents or her cultural community.

“I went back to Pakistan and there were many people who think the vaccine is there to kill people, to depopulate the world.”To Vaccinate or Not To Vaccinate

EM:  Let’s start with the story you were telling me a few weeks ago about your family and their response to vaccination mandates.

FS: It’s all about the fake news and the people. People in my family look more to the videos on YouTube and they believe those stories. For example, some of my relatives came from Pakistan two months ago.  We tried to convince them to be vaccinated, but they were hesitant because they believed the vaccine had a chip in it and then it could get injected in our bodies and they can control us and we won’t have any control over our minds. It was frustrating because the situation is getting worse and their son was also sick. We tried to convince them, but they were adamant that the vaccine is not good.

Last summer (2021), I went back to Pakistan and there were many people who think the vaccine is there to kill people, to depopulate the world.  They had that firm belief. Even if we tried to convince them that we are vaccinated and nothing has happened to us and they will be fine too, they say, “No, we don’t believe you.”

I realized then it’s not only word-of-mouth that shapes their beliefs on the vaccine but also social media. YouTube especially has very much more to do with it.

My father follows a YouTube channel called Haqeeqat TV. The host just posts a video on YouTube talking randomly about anything and none Haqeeqat TVof his claims make sense. For example, when we got infected by COVID last year, my mother was in hospital. Her condition was very serious. We were sitting in the living room and my father clicked on the video and that host was saying “There is no COVID. There is nothing like that, it’s just propaganda to shut down the world. America is fine. Nothing is happening there.  People are living their lives. It is just us [in Pakistan] who are suffering because of it.” My father wasn’t convinced that guy’s claims were false!

EM:  Are you vaccinated?

FS:  Yeah, I’m vaccinated.  My whole family—father, mother, two brothers—is now vaccinated.

EM:  The relatives that came from Pakistan, they were not vaccinated.

FS:  Yeah, they were not vaccinated.  Do you remember that I told you that I skipped two classes because I found out my friend tested positive and I maybe I was having symptoms and I wanted to get tested?  When I told these relatives that I think I am COVID positive too, they were kind of scared. What I did is scare them more. Then they said they should get vaccinated.

EM:  What part of Pakistan does your family come from?

FS:  Punjab.

“. . . it is common for girls that if they get married then they aren’t allowed to continue their education.”Finish Your Degree So We Can Get You Married

EM:  Please tell me the story about your friend who was about to turn 21 and her father wanted to send her back to Pakistan to get married, so she’s hurrying up to finish her college.

FS: One day when we were discussing about majors and she said, “I’m an accounting major.” She said she was taking summer and winter classes. She was trying to finish college early. I asked her, “why?” She said that “My parents will get me married soon so I don’t want my degree left unfinished.” I was shocked at that time. I thought “Your husband won’t allow you to study if you get married? That is why you are hurrying up?” She was hesitant. She didn’t really reply. She is going to turn 20 in January 2022. She is hoping to complete her bachelor’s degree by 2023. It isn’t clear that she is facing pressure from her family, that she won’t be able to finish her degree after she gets married.

I do know some people from Pakistan where it is common for girls that if they get married then they aren’t allowed to continue their education. Or if they’re working, they aren’t allowed to continue their job. I tried to talk to her about that later too, but she didn’t respond.

EM:  Are you facing a similar situation or is it different with your family?

FS:  In my situation, there is no pressure that I wouldn’t be able to continue my studies. My father, however, wants me to get married after I graduate and he wants me to marry in 2024 or 2025.

I don’t want to get married so early because for me, my age should be 26 or 27 to get married. I believe I will be more responsible and more ready then to get into marriage. I disagree with my father. He thinks you should get your children married at a certain age, for example, 22 or 23.  He is adamant.  He talks about it every day. “Once you graduate, I want you to get married,” he says.

It’s Not the Same for Boys

Men on Motorcycle, Lhore, Punjab, PakistanEM:  Is it the same for your brothers?

FS:  I don’t think so. My brothers are young.  One is three years younger than me. The other is six years younger than me.  One is going to get into college and the other just entered high school.  I’m about to finish my college.

I don’t think they’re going to have the situation like I am. I realized this a month ago.  My f was in a relationship with a Pakistani girl.  He hid that relationship from all of us, but then we went to Pakistan and he told one of my cousins about it who told everyone my brother was in a relationship with a girl.

My mother got to know about it. I was not shocked because I was expecting this because of the kind of behavior he showed.  But I wasn’t as shocked as my mother was. He had normal behavior, but we really didn’t know how my father was going to react. My father was here [in the U.S.] when we were in Pakistan so when we came back, my mother told him.  He didn’t react well.  He just shoved it off.

EM:  So, it’s different for boys?

FS:  Yeah, it’s different for boys.

The next thing I’m going to tell you is much worse. The girl my brother had this relationship with is also from Pakistan, from Punjab.  Her parents eventually learned about the relationship, here’s how. Let me tell you about her brother. Her brother is a college freshman. He has a lot of girlfriends. You could call him a playboy. Everyone knows about it in his house, even his father, his mother, his sisters. He has one girlfriend that he introduced to his parents, his family. But when that boy catches his sister in the relationship with my brother! What he does he do now? He tells this to his parents.

My brother’s girlfriend faces the wrath of her parents. They come to our house and they threaten my mother, my father. My brother was in school. I was in college. They talk to my father and say “Tell your son never to contact our daughter again.” My father was much calmer “I realized what parents think and believe for their daughters is different from what they want for their son.”because he realized the situation my brother was in because he is also from the same background.  So, he was much calmer and he apologized to the girlfriend’s parents.

Then they came again. They said they wanted my brother’s phone to read all the messages, all the pictures of their daughter. My brother said “I won’t give them my phone.” They threatened to go the police. Realizing the situation, my father said that we needed to give them the phone so they can just check it out and they will give it back to my brother. They checked the phone and deleted all the pictures and then deleted all the messages.

On that day, I realized what parents think and believe for their daughters is different from what they want for their son. My dad was outside our home talking to the girl’s dad and I went to my brother’s room and said “You know what. It doesn’t matter that this happened to you but I can realize what the girl’s going through.” Her parents emotionally blackmailed her to cut all ties with my brother. I realized it must have been a horrible situation for her.

I talked to my brother and said “I’m really angry because I know what she’s going through. If I would have been in that situation, the scenario in our home would have been different.” My mother was now calmer, my father was calmer, but if it had been me caught in a relationship, oh my God.

The Culture Clash

EM:  Are you of the Muslim faith?

FS:  Yes.

Men_in_Pakistan_Market PlaceEM:  Do you have a sense that other young women like yourself of the Muslim faith in places like Pakistan are in similar situations? That when they come from those countries to the United States where the cultural mores are different, where young men and young women behave differently?

In the west there are women in their mid-twenties and even thirties who are still single but they have careers. Do you feel like you’re running into a cultural clash because you’re coming from a culture that has very different values when it comes to how a young woman should behave and how much education a young woman should get?

FS: I think yes.  I 100% agree with that. There is not only a culture clash in the United States, but also in Pakistan. The area where I come from, people are not that well educated. They are very narrow-minded. That narrow-mindedness is what my parents took with them when they came here. The people who are from a different area in the same country who have a different mindset, they also have a clash with “. . . 45% of the people want to stand up for women and 55% or 60% of people want to control them.”people who are very extremist regarding their beliefs. Not only about religion, but also about how they want the woman to live like. You can say that 45% of the people want to stand up for women and 55% or 60% of people want to control them.

It’s not only when you come from Pakistan or India to here. It’s also other countries. It’s about the mindset, where they have lived and how their mindset is shaped. That belief then comes in the form of decisions and how they behave with other people. There’s a lot going on. Not only here, but there too.

I have friends there and some of them are married. Half of them quit their education and half of them are continuing their education. Some are continuing their education without getting married. Some of them are getting married by their own will to the person they like and they are completing their education. They are not from the same area.  Some of them are from Lahore, Karachi, some from Islamabad.  Some of them are from the part where I came from.  Each one of them have different lives. They face different situations in their lives and face different hardships.

In Part II of this blog (which will be posted next week), Female Student (FS) tells us how she relates to her parents and  plans to navigate the next chapter of her life after college.

NOTE: The images in this blog are from Creative Common License stock and do not reflect any of the individuals mentioned in the blog.

Eugene Marlow, MBA, Ph.D., © 2022

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