Living alone is hard for women in Pakistan but lessons from these outliers can help

The process of moving out of family homes is anything but easy —especially if you’re a woman.

Published Jun 15, 2020 11:38am


As a society rooted in the institution of the family, we’re lucky to be surrounded by parents, elders, siblings and cousins. But one does wonder what adventures await those who had the courage to leave their intimate cocoons and go out into the world on their own.

Though things are a little different in Pakistan, in the west, 'moving out' more or less qualifies as an adult milestone. After all, it's inspired by and is a reflection of how nature works; when ready, the bird is obligated to leave its nest and fend for itself.

But whether it was in pursuit of higher education, better job opportunities or just the desire to get away, the process of moving out of family homes is anything but easy —especially if you’re a woman.

A dearth of safe affordable housing and commute make travelling and living solo for women a much more challenging task.

The young fledge the nest

Maheen Qadri, a 24-year-old teaching fellow for Teach for Pakistan, an NGO working to eradicate educational inequity in the country, moved to Islamabad last year as part of her teaching fellowship to educate young girls from underprivileged backgrounds.

“As a part of the fellowship, I am teaching third and fourth grade English at a government school for girls in the outskirts of Islamabad. I always wanted to work in academic publishing, more specifically, on language and literary books for primary to secondary school students. But I did not have any field experience that would allow me to develop content. I applied to this fellowship because I thought it would educate me in the appropriate requirements of what a “good” book is for a primary and secondary schooler."

Qadri says as luck would have it, her application was accepted and she moved all the way from Karachi to Islamabad to teach a small army of 139 girls in an area called Tarlai Kalan.

Maheen took the leap of faith
Maheen took the leap of faith

She recalls the first night she spent away from her family in Islamabad.

"My first night in Islamabad, all I did was cry. It was so dark in the hostel room I was in, that I had to keep a flashlight switched on the whole night. I had never been afraid of the dark before. But then again, there was no Ammi here to blow prayers on my forehead here."

Qadri continued, “I didn’t know anyone in Islamabad. I had no family here, the only people I know here are the people I work with."

Whether it was in pursuit of higher education, better job opportunities or just the desire to get away, the process of moving out of family homes is anything but easy —especially if you’re a woman.


She stayed in the hostel in her first month on the job. While it was a bit pricey, she thought it would be the best way to get by, taking into consideration that her food, laundry, furniture and security would be sorted and all she'd have to focus on was her job.

But Qadri soon realised that the city was too heavy on her wallet.

"Our job didn’t pay as much as the city demanded. The school I work at was an hour away from the hostel and practically all my money was going into lodging and transport. I found myself cutting at my own very basic and necessary expenses like toiletries and over skincare so that I could have enough to give my warden at the end of the month.”

Expensive hostel accommodations crippled with the nostalgia of missing home can be overwhelming. Qadri stresses on how some days were particularly tough, luckily, she had the support of her roommate which eventually led them to rent their own space.

“I remember this specific day, I came home from work and the warden asked to see me. I hadn’t submitted the required photocopy of my CNIC to her and she wanted it straight away. I had to tell her that I didn’t even have the money to get a photocopy that day. It was pretty rough admitting that to a woman who didn’t really look like she believed me."

After experiencing a panic attack about how to make ends meet, Qadri and her roommate decided to rent a portion near both their schools, which she said would be a cheaper option than living in the hostel.

"I was scared of renting. I was very scared of this very mean and very expensive city. I couldn’t believe her when she said it would cost less but I was desperate and told her that I was with her."

Qadri says they've managed to get out of an excruciatingly expensive part of the city and in an area "that feels a lot like home already."

A security blanket

Indeed, having a strong support system plays a pivotal role in shaping one’s experience in life.

Fatima Rafi, who works as an accounts manager at a leading online marketing firm, says the strong support system she has with her flatmates is essential.

“My mother passed away when I was 19. After that I lived with my aunt for a year since my father and I faced a financial crisis after my mother demise. But my flatmates and I are like family to each other; family that we never had."

"Most of them have loved ones back home in far off cities, but we share a strong bond and support each other. One flatmate of mine is practically like a sister to me. We go shopping for groceries and she acts as a strong support system for me.”

In search of better opportunities

While moving out isn’t an easy decision, sometimes it becomes necessary when in pursuit of better opportunities.

28-year-old Bushra Joyo recalls how she moved to Karachi for her bachelors when she was only 17 years old and started working when she about 21 years old.

"I was a pre-engineering student so I really wanted to do environmental engineering, however, there was only one option available for me in Hyderabad, which was Mehran University. Truth be told, I wasn’t comfortable with the environment."

"That’s when I decided I had to move out of Hyderabad to pursue better opportunities. In order to do something which is different, in order to be successful. That’s when I applied to Szabist. I could choose between multiple options — social sciences, business but media sciences really caught my eye. It was something different. It was something new. It was something that excited me a lot.”

Bushra was lucky to have the support of her parents
Bushra was lucky to have the support of her parents

“My parents were supportive. Initially, my father thought it would be quite expensive since there was the semester fee, the hostel fee, my personal expenses etc. But at the same time, he considered education a top priority for his daughters."

Qadri and her housemate ask often ask each other, “Kya hum waqaii itne baray hogaye hain?” when they pay the bills. "Neither of us quite have a grip on the fact that we are capable of taking care of ourselves even after living on our own for almost a year now.”


Joyo's mother was a huge support and told the family, “Bushra needs to go out and she needs to do whatever she likes because this is for her better career and her better life. I was very lucky."

"But living on your own isn’t easy. It comes with a number of responsibilities."

Bushra expresses how those initial years truly shaped her into a more responsible adult.

“You’re all on your own. You have to be very very responsible. Everything matters, groceries, your alarm clock going off, whether your clothes are pressed or not. Things that somebody else was taking care of, now it’s all on you. And nobody teaches you that. In school, you’ll learn mathematics, English, languages, but they don’t teach you living skills or how to survive on your own.”

Relearning the basics

Learning to take care of yourself and manage your expenses is another challenge.

Qadri remembers when she and her housemate first went shopping: “Managing yourself, even if you cut down your expenses to the very basics is something I have been struggling with the most."

"My housemate and I, we do what we can to get by as best as we can. The first time we went out shopping for basics for the house, we went with a very serious agenda to look for pots and pans, and cheap furniture—and only that. But we were having a very unhappy time doing it; constantly bickering with each other about it.

But the first thing the pair ended up buying together was a heart-shaped chalkboard which they decided to put up in their kitchen to leave notes for each other.

"Once we made that purchase, we shopped for basics very happily. Grocery shopping since then is an achievement every month; to be doing something on our own what our mothers did for us is a shock to us every time."

Qadri and her housemate ask often ask each other, “Are we really adults?” when they pay the bills.

"Neither of us quite have a grip on the fact that we're capable of taking care of ourselves even after living on our own for almost a year now.”

Apart from cooking, cleaning and doing laundry, Rafi reiterates how driving too is an important life skill—one that has helped her tremendously.

“I am thankful to my dad that he taught me how to drive at a young age. It has made my life very very easy. I am much more independent as I don’t have to wait for someone to pick me up or help me while I go about my day.”

Though ride-hailing apps have made commute much easier, Joyo moved to Karachi when moving around the city wasn’t easy.

“This was a huge problem for me. Back in the day, there was no Careem or Uber, only rickshaws and local public buses. It was extremely difficult for me to be mobile. I had to ask my friends to pick and drop me which was very embarrassing because now I had no car of my own."

"I really wanted to get a scooter but my mother didn’t deem it safe for me. However, had I had that scooter, my life would have been so much easier.”

The challenges of being on your own

Aside from logistics and expenses, safety and the constant disapproval from society are strong factors that usually impact women.

“Any woman who drives in Pakistan will tell you they get looks, or worse, followed. Or even when I mention that I live alone. Sometimes people get excited but other times people either are surprised or they start making their own assumptions,” shares Rafi.

While the disapproval of others is common, there are bigger challenges that girls need to prepare themselves for urges Joyo.

“Once you’re out of your hostel or apartment or anywhere, you ultimately have to face the kind of society that we live in. There’s a big challenge regarding safety, you need to be careful that you’re not out during odd hours and that you’re dressed properly."

"I know that nobody should have these restrictions, everyone should have the authority to live the way they like but, unfortunately, in Pakistan, it’s still not completely possible. Just be hyper-vigilant about your surroundings.”

“You need to have the confidence to move on your own. You need to know how to cook, how to do your groceries, how to get yourself out of difficult situations. Of course, with time you learn a lot of things as well but survival on your own is only possible if you have confidence.


In terms of advice for young women who want to move out or lead a more independent life, Joyo emphasises the importance of learning basic life skills and financial literacy.

“These are two things which are extremely important. You need to have the determination to move on your own. You need to know how to cook, how to do your groceries, how to get yourself out of difficult situations. Of course, with time you learn a lot of things as well but survival on your own is only possible if you have confidence."

"You have to be positive, surround yourself with good people. Seek out emotional support from loved ones, make friends in the city and be financially stable.”

As for regrets, she urges young women to be mobile.

“Your mobility is of the utmost importance. If you have a car, that’s great, but if not, invest in a scooter or a motorbike. And don’t be afraid. Things get much easier when you have confidence, trust me."


Marvi Masud is a freelance writer and is currently pursuing an MBA from KSBL. She is passionate about marketing and advertising. Find her on Instagram: @marvimasud