Dear Pakistanis, why do you think single women are a joke?

Updated 29 Nov, 2016 03:55pm

Maha Mussadaq

Don't you understand that this social pressure to get married is what leads to acid-burning, forced marriage and more?

A couple of days ago, my sister laughingly turned her phone around to show me a post on Facebook.

A single friend of ours had been 'tagged' in a post about a matrimonial meet-up event that is taking place at the Islamabad Club on December 10th.

“DONT HAVE TIME TO FIND YOUR PARTNER?" it read, in capital letters of course. “Limited seats available at the 'Him & Her Matrimonial Match-making Event' in Islamabad. Your search for soulmate ends here!!! Get matched today! Restricted to educated and business class only," followed by timings and the venue.

We laughed it off. “What if one is 'economy class?'" I quipped. "Is this an airplane ticket?” Later that night, I saw the post making the rounds on several Facebook profiles, mostly the profiles of my single male and female friends. Family members, concerned uncles, aunts, third cousins and random colleagues began 'liking' the post, and soon this devolved into something less than humourous. Married friends began tagging single people on the post as if there was no tomorrow, saying 'maybe you'll have better luck finding a partner here!' and I thought, WHY? Were people singling out unmarried friends because the poster was tacky or because they thought it's unfortunate and rather sad to be single in your late 20s and 30s?

Things snowballed and my single friends continued to be tagged in this post. The next morning, my phone was filled with messages from single friends asking “What is wrong with people, why can't they mind their own business?!”

The answer to this question brings me to my point: no matter which social class you belong to, after a certain age being single is one of the more controversial ways you can choose to live your life in Pakistan today. And to add insult to injury, with our twisted notions of privacy and what's 'right' and 'wrong' everyone seems to think commenting on your marital status is their birthright.

I mean, living in a society with such grand double standards as ours in Pakistan, dating is almost blasphemous, but being dolled up and parading around for a stranger's mother, sister and grandmother with a tea trolley that looks like a national day float adorned with snacks from the local bakery is the norm. Weird, right?

I returned to the post and thought to myself, while this event may potentially be a good opportunity for those who don't have many avenues to meet potential partners, it could also be yet another ego-shattering experience for those living under constant scrutiny and pressure about marriage.

After all, the horror stories of the “rishta drills” that some of my friends have been through were fresh in my mind. Not again, I thought to myself, not in front of so many people. Being rejected primarily on the basis of your physical appearance seems to be the norm during the rishta hunt; when it comes to women no one ever really looks at their academic or professional qualifications. Is this really something we can brush off as funny?

While the issue of finding the suitable match might be 'hilarious' in the upper-class, it becomes something darker in other socio-economic classes of society.

An older woman, a mother of three unmarried daughters, once said to me: “I really want to know what people want in a 'bride'. In today’s day and age there is a solution for absolutely anything. If she is dark, she can get skin lightening injections. If she is short she can wear heels, if the guy wants light eyes and blonde hair, there are contact lenses and hair dye, the list of solutions goes on."

Similarly another friend looking for a rishta for her brother in law made it clear her (and his) choice pick would not be anyone "unconventional” and we jokingly said, “Oh yes, he wants the clutch-bag-holding-Instagram Barbie, got it”.

I turned to Facebook that night and wrote a status about how tagging a bunch of single people under this post was offensive.

I asked my married friends to mind their own business and expressed support for my single friends, encouraging them to live life they way they want to. I went on bragging about my own life, which, even though I'm single, happens to be amazing! I have great parents, a flourishing career, caring friends, an exciting social life, and above all else, the freedom to have an independent schedule. I'm not saying that I don't want to settle down, but am just saying that the transition from singledom to marriage will happen at its own time, so please just let people be.

But this privilege and luxury to speak our minds is probably enjoyed by very small segment of the society, where one is entitled to making my their own choices and being supported by family. Mine is not the freedom the majority of girls in Pakistan have.

Which is why being sensitive about the 'marriage question' is more important than ever.

While the issue of finding the suitable match might be 'hilarious' in the upper-class, it becomes something darker in other socio-economic classes of society. As a journalist I routinely come across stories of forced marriages, of minors as young as five-years-old married off without consent, or cases of acid attacks if a proposal is refused, or of girls committing suicide at a high rate — which highlight the harsh consequences society burdens women with when they try to make their own choices and live their own independent lives.

At a recent event held in Islamabad, women community leaders from 45 districts of Pakistan came together and urged women and girls to stand up for their rights and become a change agent in their families. The deputy head of DFID Judith Herbertson, who was present at the event, said that in 2016’s Pakistan, people are born unequal if they are poor, belong to minority group or are person with a disability, but the biggest disadvantage is to be born a woman.

Sharing some basic statistics, she said 55 percent of girls in Pakistan are not allowed to go to school, 35 percent are married before their 16th birthday, 40 percent experience violence — and so on. The speakers at the event said physical violence has considerably decreased in the society but the mental violence still exists, which is a biggest hurdle in the way of women empowerment.

Harassing women to get married just because society deems they 'ought to' is another form of mental violence and moral policing.

Women make approximately 51 percent of the population in Pakistan, our mental well being is key, and we need encouragement to become agents of change through their economic and social contributions.

Battling social pressure is a constant struggle and a serious concern for the majority of girls living in Pakistan. I see no humour in it.

So if you have a single friend — don't constantly ask them when they'll be ready to 'settle down.' Ask them about work, or what books they've read, or anything else, really. There's more to life than getting hitched.