March Issue 2005

By | People | Q & A | Published 15 years ago

A reception is held in honour of the regional chief of a multinational company. A succession of Pakistan’s high-profile corporate kings, minus their socialite wives, are in attendance. As usual, she walks in alone, head held high. Mingling effortlessly with the crowd, she laughs politely, tells a joke, moves on, makes a deal, and renews a few professional contacts. They see her as poised and elegant, and at 40-something, decidedly attractive. The clock strikes nine, she gathers her purse, and walks herself to her car. Flash forward a few hours: she’s curled up on a sofa, being interviewed. There’s the inevitable question: “Why don’t you find a man?” “Do I need one?” she answers, quick-on-the-ball. “Besides,” she adds, in her most private admission, “even if I was interested in marrying again, at my age, every man worth my time is either married or intimidated by my independence. I’m not the sort of person who’ll have an affair with a married man, and I’m not willing to play mother to a grown man’s insecurities.”

Power, they say, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. There certainly are enough examples to prove it. Mustafa Khar’s umpteen wives. Imran Khan and his legions of enamoured socialites — both sides of the colonial/native divide. And more recently, Shahbaz Sharif and the former feudal lord’s wife, Ms. Durrani. After all, ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Though Jane Austen wrote that 200 years ago, little has changed since.

But what about powerful Pakistani women?

Do they remain in want of a husband?

If a sample survey of executive posts in companies across Pakistan is anything to go by (see chart), many of Pakistan’s women movers and shakers are unmarried. At Glaxo Smith Kline, for example, half or more of the women in senior management positions are single. It’s the same story at Hum TV, Unilever, Novartis, PICIC and Shell. And these figures do not include the number of divorcees.

Research conducted in even what is perceived as the most feminist society, the US, indicates that women who make it to powerful positions in the workplace are mostly unattached. According to an employer, “free of the tug of responsibilities that juggling a relationship and a demanding career entails, single women are more likely to put in extra hours at work, to push that much harder.” Radio producer and television director, Ayeshah Alam, among other successful professional women, admits, “Being single can be a blessing, career-wise. Whenever I was single, out of both my marriages, that is, I have made the biggest leaps in my careers. I think when in a relationship, women focus more on the man that they are with.”

The key question, however, is are they “in want” of a man, or is that a need society dictates?

Rarely, it seems, is the choice of pursuing career over love made voluntarily. Says Murad Khan, psychiatrist at the AKU, “If women are staying single longer, it’s only because they have not found a suitable match.Very few women, unmarried or otherwise, stay single out of choice.” Take the case of the young Frieha Altaf, for example. While at the beautician’s on her wedding day, dressed in full bridal adornment, she received a call from her fiancé. At the eleventh hour, under family pressure, he called the wedding off. Twice more, she willingly gave up her job, her country and her friends, to follow her heart, only to be disappointed and betrayed. With the responsibilities of single parenthood now thrust upon her, Frieha had little choice but to stand on her own two feet. Does she look back at her life with regret? “Well, I have never really known anything else,” she says, “but my ideal life would definitely have involved marriage and children.”

In an informal study undertaken by local advertising agency, Interflo, a representative section of women were asked to list their top five ambitions. Most remained conspicuously silent about the importance of a successful career. The top choice? A happy marriage and home. In 2003, Fortune magazine ran a feature story on ‘Power: Do women really want it?’ Time followed with: ‘The case for staying at home: why more young mums are opting out of the rat race.’ The consensus? Women do not seek power through the workplace. Empowerment for them means being successful at home. Additional stories in the New York Times, Business Week, Fortune, Newsweek and Fast Company also revealed that women chose to leave top leadership positions in order to marry and have babies.

It is perhaps understandable then, that powerful career women in Pakistan often appear uncomfortable when confronted with the trade-off between careers and relationships. Many are deliberately opaque on the issue. Said Hummaa Ahmed, Executive Editor of The News, for example, “It’s purely hypothetical. There is always an individual situation and a collective situation.” It is a sentiment echoed by PPP parlimentarian, Sherry Rehman. “I don’t think that powerful women are single because of the pressures of work,” she say. “Generalisations of any kind make me a little queasy in any case.”

Explains a psychiatrist, “A single working woman in Pakistan has almost always invited criticism.” Toppling the ‘no dogs and women allowed’ hierarchy, the women who openly defy the status quo, can often find themselves demonised, sneered at, even feared. Almost all feel that society at large, and men in particular, are intimidated by them. Says Former ‘Girl Friday,’ Aaminah Haq, ” My career has definitely impacted my marriage prospects.” And in most cases, a single career woman’s standing at work is continuously questioned. And according to Mahreen Khan, ex-anchor of BBC’s Question Time Pakistan , “A single female is always eyed with a certain amount of curiosity. I could have just announced that I had won the Nobel Prize, but it wouldn’t matter. ‘When are you getting married?’ they’d still ask.”

It is little wonder then, that despite their visible profiles, some single, working women, prefer to remain strictly ambiguous about their marital status. “I jealously guard my privacy,” says one. “When men find out I’m single, they automatically think I’m easy. When I walk in, I don’t want my baggage to walk in front of me. Society should judge me solely on the basis of my professionalism, not my private life.”

Among the many women who’d rather not go public with their personal lives, however, there are the few who aren’t reticent about letting the skeletons out of their closets — rattle as they may. Says Salma Ahmed, a single, successful, business woman industrialist in her candid autobiography, Cutting Free, “there’s no point lying about my life… I don’t care if people judge me.”

In a society that defies maternal love, and condemns extra-marital liaisons for example, Salma candidly speaks about virtually abandoning her assorted children to their fate — or their respective fathers — and makes no excuses for for her amorous dalliances while married. Yet even this quite in your face woman of the world admits that she would probably not have entered business had circumstances not forced her hand. “My third husband was not very well off,” she explains. “So I decided to set up my own business.” As illustrated by the eleven interviews of single professionals that follow, women across all generations and in top positions openly admit that being single contributed fundamentally towards their success — even if their singledom owes not to choice but circumstance.

Would any of these women change their lives, if they could?

For the right man, yes, acknowledge some. Says Alam, for example, “If my partner did not want me to be on TV, if he meant a lot to me, I would quit. I certainly do not want to be alone. If that shocks feminists, I’m sorry. My work is important, but up to a certain level.”

For the women who have genuinely crossed the Rubicon, however, there is merit in singledom. Gloria Steinem, the icon of American feminism once said, the old woman was just “one man away from welfare.” Today, however, she admits, “Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence.” As the twice divorced and now remarried Sherry Rahman explains, “Until you have paid your own utility bills and experienced the mundane terrors of living alone, you are really not independent, and if you’re not independent, then you have lived half a life. As poetess Amrita Pritam memorably said, ‘a woman can never really love until she has made that choice from a place where she did not really need a man’.”