Living alone isn’t easy, especially if you’re a woman in Pakistan

From snooping neighbours to inquisitive landlords, the 'freedoms' of living independently aren't always what they're cracked up to be.
22 Jan, 2024

I arrived in Lahore as a young woman, filled with hope and promise and with the support of my cousin who had been living there for a few years. I enrolled in a university and settled into their hostel, starting my journey of living alone. Living alone, I learned, is not without its challenges.

After a while in the hostel, I began searching for independent living options. The hostel situation was far from ideal — it felt like a confinement, with six girls crammed into a single room and little cupboard space that forced us to live out of our suitcases. The rental market proved to be equally perplexing. I had assumed that, being an educated woman with a degree and a stable job, finding accommodation in a good neighbourhood would be a breeze. I was wrong.

To my dismay, I encountered strange people who asked intrusive questions like, “Are you married?” and “Do you have any male friends?” instead of inquiring about my financial stability. These questions were not only irrelevant but also invasive.

The rules imposed by landlords were even more perplexing — no friends (of any gender) allowed after sunset, no going out after dark, and no returning home late, despite paying for independent living units and working a 12-hour shift. These restrictions applied only to women, as I observed my male acquaintances freely partying in their flats and staying out late without any interference.

As someone whose parents trusted me completely, and as I attempted to prove my independence, I was unprepared for the intrusive behaviour of landlords, guards, watchmen, caretakers, and neighbours. They exhibited an unhealthy interest in my whereabouts, which made me feel uncomfortable and violated.

For instance, when I moved into an upper portion, an elderly neighbour once knocked on my door, accusing me of hosting people when I was simply watching a TV show on my laptop. She had mistaken the characters on my screen for actual guests. Another, rather ridiculous, example is when I shifted to a flat and the landlord and neighbours were constantly curious about my movements, even going so far as to inquire with my regular rickshaw driver about where he picked me up and dropped me off daily. Being a journalist helped to some extent, but it was still a continuous struggle.

Upon moving to Islamabad after marriage, I realised that finding accommodation was no longer as stressful. We found a place where we have been living for years, and our landlords and neighbours do not scrutinise our activities. This prompted me to ponder whether these experiences were unique to single women in Pakistan. As I spoke with other women, I realised that single women in this country do indeed face very different treatment.

So, I decided to collect stories from women living alone across Pakistan in various cities and compile them here.

Good Landlord, Bad Landlord

When a single woman decides to move out of her family’s home, she is often met with raised eyebrows and numerous questions. Gaining trust and embarking on this journey is challenging, but the next hurdle is finding a landlord who respects your privacy and the fact that you’re an adult. Single men and women both face scrutiny and judgment from society, especially from landlords. For Laiba, a journalist based in Lahore since 2020 and originally from Multan, navigating the rental market has been a continuous ordeal.

Initially, it was difficult for her to convince landlords to rent to single women. Some landlords even stipulated, “No mahram is allowed, even if it’s your husband.” One landlord went as far as to say, “Even your father cannot cross the gate of this house” — a statement that shocked her enough to reject the property.

Later, Laiba was joined by her younger brother and a female cousin in Lahore, which further complicated matters. “We had to show our ID cards to prove our blood ties — that we are siblings,” she explained. Unsurprisingly, the neighbours were overly curious and ‘concerned’, constantly monitoring who entered or exited the house and at what time. Laiba found this excessive scrutiny absurd, considering that she lives in a society where family values are paramount. She questioned the need for constant surveillance, stating, “Nothing untoward is happening. Why do you need to keep an eye on us?”

Nimra, who has been living alone in Peshawar since 2020, confirmed that one significant challenge she faces is with landlords. “Unfortunately, luck hasn’t been on my side in this regard. Despite having a good background and stable income, some landlords tend to view us with suspicion. This perception of ‘shady individuals’ persists, even if they are aware of our daily routines,” she shared.

I tried contacting landlords who had refused to rent their properties to single women, but they refused to comment. While talking to a real estate agent who operates in the twin cities, I was informed that they are usually told to not bring in single women, or girls without a ‘good’ family background.

“They are worried that single women can’t afford rent or will find ‘haram’ [unscrupulous] means to earn money,” explained Sabraiz, a real estate agent in Rawalpindi/Islamabad. He said they avoid sending young women to landlords who have given them such clarity.

“Sometimes, clients say they don’t mind renting out to girls but after meeting some girls, they say their ‘vibe’ was not right. Hence, they get rejected,” said Chaudry, another real estate agent working in Islamabad. “The landlords in Islamabad are very open-minded and many girls can live here without interference from landlords. Yet, it depends on their understanding with each other,” he added.

Staying within arbitrary ‘limits’ seems to be one of the characteristics of a ‘good’ female tenant — “Hard-working girls, who know their limits are always successful and live happily,” said Sumaira, a landlord who runs a hostel in Islamabad’s E-11. She has been running the business for over a decade and believes that girls are the best tenants.

“My girls are very clean, they are always home on time (even though the hostel has no curfew). They wake up early and sleep early (except for some who have night duties). They never cause issues or troubles. Yes, no men are allowed but they can do whatever they want outside the hostel. But working women do not have time for these immoral things,” she added.

Finding yourself

Living independently is not just about having fun and throwing parties, as many people seem to think. Individuals, regardless of their gender, tend to develop a greater sense of responsibility and independence as they learn to navigate the intricacies of the world.

For Zehra, a writer based in Karachi who has been living alone since 2021, this experience brought her a newfound sense of liberation. Financially supported by her family, she found herself discovering life beyond the confines of her home. She started to realise the disparities between the experiences of girls and boys, which led to her developing an awareness of society’s dynamics.

Living alone taught Zehra invaluable life skills, including managing household chores and finances. “It made me realise the importance of taking responsibility for preparing meals, as I cannot simply order food or rely on my mother to provide meals,” she explained.

Not having a curfew is a positive aspect that many women mentioned in my interviews, but none of them seem willing to test the boundaries of their newfound freedom, given the current security situation in the country. However, they do appreciate the ability to invite friends over at any time, spend as long as they like with them, and have the freedom to socialise with whomever they choose. Laiba reflected on this, saying, “You can do whatever you want with your time. So that’s a relief. When you get used to that lifestyle, it becomes difficult to live in different circumstances or with people who monitor your activities or require permission for outings, regardless of gender.”

Atiya from Karachi believes that living alone has also been beneficial for her mental health. After studying abroad, she returned to Pakistan and felt her movements were far too restricted for her liking. “When we are sent abroad, we experience the world and its freedoms, and then we return and confine ourselves,” she observed. She acknowledged that living alone in Pakistan has its difficulties but recommended finding like-minded housemates with whom you can set boundaries that work for everyone. Living independently allows many women to live on their own terms and set boundaries.

But living alone isn’t as challenging for everyone. For example, Rumana, a resident of Islamabad in her 60s, lives in her own house inherited from her late parents. She is financially independent and feels no different from her married friends. “We all face the same domestic issues,” she said.

Sarah’s experience of living alone has been positive, and she believes that living independently is essential for everyone at least once in their life. “It teaches you how to manage your finances, and budget, and learn household chores, regardless of your gender,” she said.

Living alone in Pakistan can be a journey of struggle and resilience. Women encounter unique challenges, often rooted in societal norms and expectations. However, we must work towards creating an environment that empowers women to live independently without fear of harassment or invasion of privacy. It’s time to break down the barriers and create a safe and inclusive society for everyone.