In a society where doctors are revered and psychologists criticised, it wasn't surprising when my parents overlooked my worsening hypochondria and instead remained persistent in their desire to make me a doctor.
Growing up, dramatic depictions of lethal diseases such as cancer and HIV scared me. I would self-diagnose myself with illnesses that affected the brain, lungs and heart. The paranoia was unsettling. I came to hate hospitals and clinics, despised doctors and nurses and maintained a considerable distance from anyone showing symptoms of diseases that weren't even contagious.
But mental health was seldom in the interest of Pakistani parents; for them, self-aggrandised stereotypes and societal values supersede individual decision-making. Breaking free from these norms is something that would require a century and thus, it took a lot of crying and emotional blackmail to convince my parents that medicine was perhaps not the career for me.
But pre-imposed career choices are the plight of many youngsters in our country — especially women. Many people are not fortunate enough to pursue their own choices. The dilemma of my 21-year old friend perplexed me. Her parents were so adamant to see their first-born don a white lab coat that the girl had to alternate between O-Levels and Matriculation, from FSc to A-Levels and back again, all the while losing valuable time that could have been utilised more effectively by studying subjects she naturally had an interest in.
Pakistan's obsession with a medical degree is unreal. Such fanaticism though common in many households usually goes unnoticed and unheard. The race to clear medical entry tests isn't just an academic endeavour — because of so many expectations involved, it is also an attempt to appease society. In 2020 alone, a whopping 125,000 students registered for the test. This leads one to question if the nation can accommodate so many prospective doctors, especially at the cost of lack of applicants for other areas of study.
Many daughters are raised to believe that medicine is the only respectable profession for a woman, that it is their only way of being valued in society. Students who are natural high scorers are expected to enrol in medical institutes, if they succeed they are celebrated but if they don't then it's the end. I remember when news of my neighbour's daughter getting accepted into a prestigious medical institute (on a full scholarship) broke out — the neighbourhood aunties rejoiced but I became the target for their sarcasm.
"If an average student like her can get into such a reputable university, imagine where you could have landed as a doctor," my mother had said. It is unfortunate how the entire process has been relegated to this unofficial and needless competition between brothers and sisters, cousins and friends. A competition where the parents sit as spectators, a contest that seeds envy and dissent.
I would see families literally celebrating medical acceptances into small institutions and suddenly question my worth. I was coerced into accepting my failure before I had even set foot in a university. I know stories of students who spent years taking the same courses in college just so they could pass the MDCAT. While these are certainly tales of persistence and determination, they also give valuable insight into why not everyone possesses the aptitude for MBBS and why not everyone is suited to become a doctor. But Pakistani parents are seldom willing to take no for an answer, so you will see students working endless hours just to clear the first step of a journey they have been forced to embark on. And if they stumble, feelings of misery and hopefulness become their companions for life; emotions that could lead to depression and even suicide in extreme cases.
The mindset of the Pakistani populace is hard to change; it would require nothing short of a literal revolution to overcome such attitudes that harm the self-confidence of so many young girls. That diminishes their abilities to think big, to think out of the box, to ponder in non-conventional domains, to adopt arts and drama or other future career paths because at the end of the day, no matter how individually self-sufficient a person can claim to be, societal support — a family's support in particular — is the cornerstone of raising creative and intelligent minds that are not afraid of failure.
But family pressure is what defines Asian households. Although my refusal to become a doctor may have saved me from a life I didn't want to live, it was my sister who fell prey to society's unrealistic expectations. If it were up to the Pakistani populace, you would see all women walking around in white coats with nowhere to go. In a country with an already overburdened health infrastructure system, medical universities are churning out doctors that hospitals can't accept. Parents remain determined in their resolve to raise doctors who sit at home. They trade millions for the supposed respect that comes with a medical degree. While many can try and justify such views, what remains constant is the burden of expectations on a daughter's shoulders.
"I have told her to become a doctor or else give up studying," one woman remarked when asked what she hoped for her daughter who was just seven years old. Pakistani parents who are keen advocates of authoritarian parenting consider it a moral responsibility to decide their children's future. To decide for them and to ensure that they fulfil their dreams. But in a nation where confessions of workplace abuse flood the internet, perhaps parental skepticism is justified.
People believe that it is right to force career choices on our women in order to protect them from the beasts lurking out in corporate offices. What is instead required is a consolidated approach towards changing the system and then the mindset. Incorporating more gender-friendly practices in offices would increase female participation in sectors such as banking and finance and would also help counteract beliefs that medicine is the only profession that earns respect.
The stigma attached to female occupations will take time to be eliminated because it is so deeply rooted in our culture. Nevertheless, efforts must be made to understand student aptitude for different subjects from a young age, say in primary school, where their inclination towards the arts, media, sciences or, finance can be monitored. Studies could then be streamlined as per their preferences so that students could choose professions that best suit them instead of the roles society wants them to play.
Composite artwork by Saad Arifi