Times have changed. The world has shrunk and gender roles and responsibilities have started to overlap. Now, it is not uncommon for a twenty-something woman to be the sole financial supporter of her family, or for a father-of-two to be cooking dinner on weekends. In my extended family, almost all the single women in the age range of 23-28 are working full-time, and not just in Pakistan. Some of them are living independently in foreign countries, pursuing their careers gung-ho.
So what happened to me? Do I feel envious of them? Why did I never aspire to be in that position? The answer has got to do with my innate nature and personal preferences regarding what I deem to be the purpose of my life.
After I finished my undergraduate studies in Computer Science, the supposed-to-be start of a profession that I mercilessly ditched, I immediately joined the Al-Huda Taleem Al-Quran Course in Karachi, when most of my college-mates were busy dropping resumes at all the top software houses in Karachi. To me, a prayer had been answered – I SO did NOT look forward to spending the better part of my day at a pigeon-holed cubicle in some excuse for an office, in front of a computer screen abuzz with lines upon lines of meaningless jargon (known as code) that I’d be trying to crack with desperation by repeatedly searching for errors and pressing Ctrl-F9 (non-software graduates, you won’t get what this means!).
Okay, to be fair, not all software engineers, SQA engineers, programmers, CR executives, technical writers or software testers stagnate in the same rut forever; rather, they probably go on to become – yawn – CEO’s and managers at their respective firms, perhaps even migrating towards corporate finance by doing an MBA, and hence happily relinquishing this highly delightful field of computer science.
Instead, my days were thankfully spent learning the Quran, sunnah and other Islamic subjects with a thirst I never knew existed inside me. Also, I finally was in an all-female environment where I was utterly comfortable, as opposed to the college co-ed atmosphere, where I could not even sit in a certain way, whilst studying in the hallway, without some passerby sneakily leering at me and making jeers about it to his friends over samosa’s in the cafeteria. I was home – literally – and those days at Al-Huda as a student were one of the happiest of my life.
To appease myself and family (since I always wanted a postgraduate qualification), I also managed to pursue an MCS degree in the evenings at SZABIST, whilst attending the Diploma classes in the mornings. I was 22 and my life was reverberating with academic enthusiasm (I would just study, study, and study), with my hijab progressing from just the head-cover, to the hijab and abayah, to the full ninjabi look, within the time-span of January 2000 to July 2001.
However, all good things come to an end, and amid chorusing questions of family members and friends, who kept reiterating, “When will your Diploma end?” in the hope of receiving a reassuring reply that I might be returning to the job sphere at it’s culmination, I finally finished both my Diploma in Islamic Education as well as my MCS in 2001.
Now for the tough part: for some reason, everyone assumed I’d be going back to work – i.e. I’d be joining some software firm. I, however, had no intention to get a job or to ever return to my boring professional field again. It was just NOT what I wanted to do, period.
As for the prospect of earning money – that never appealed to me either. As the title of this post suggests, I have never, ever been the sort who dreamed of a “glamorous” career: one peppered with foreign trips, paid vacations, interesting training seminars and conferences, with my achievements emblazoned on the walls of a big, technology-fitted office; hurried doughnut-and-coffee breakfasts, corporate lunches dominated with male peers guffawing away at jokes of the same variety that they cracked back at college, with me sitting in their midst – albeit with my hijab – pretending to be amused at their crude humor and juvenile mentality; hot, hurried showers on bitter cold mornings; long commutes with stifled yawns, clutching my personal notebook and Blackberry; my life a flurry of meetings, deadlines, projects and clients, with no time for anyone besides the rat-race, intent on slogging away at making ‘a mark for myself’ in life; chasing the ever-elusive dollar or foreign nationality; spending my remaining youth doing what others want me to do, expect me to do, or think I should do.
You only live once, they say. And rightly so – forget what the world wants me to become, or what my parents and extended family desire me to be. What about what I want? What makes me happy? Is it too self-centered of me to pursue my dreams? And what if the latter don’t include any of the above scenarios?
Here’s what I dreamed of – call me a loser for it, if you want: having a small, cozy home with two beautiful cherubic kids, before hitting thirty. Waking up to my little family, without any pressure to get ready and reach a workplace pursuing its own long-term strategic objectives, but taking my time to cuddle my kids and seeing them and my husband off to work and school.
After that, having my home to myself to pursue my hobbies, passions and interests…anything I want to do, that makes me happy – whether that’s reading, writing, teaching, or something else – at my own pace.
At least I am doing my own thing, on my own terms, without some third-party grueling me, making me work to meet deadlines, and closely monitoring my performance in return for the hefty paycheck they dole out to me at the end of each month.
Yes – the paycheck. Money that I probably will not even have the time or energy left to enjoy, because most of my best waking hours will be spent serving others and their organizational interests, in return for it. As for those joyous, precious moments with my family – the laughter, the jokes, and the fun – those will probably pass me by, because I was too busy earning money and ambitiously climbing the corporate ladder. Or maybe, the family will itself pass me by, unless I had the guts to stand up for my desire to acquire it!
It’s interesting how Pakistani’s use the word “job”. My maid, in response to my question: “Why didn’t you pursue studies if you could? I mean, at least you could have learned to read and write,” promptly replies, “Yes, but very early on I started my job……”
Uh-uh. Right. Even when my second-born was just a few months old, with my first a bit over two, and I met a relative after a few years, on her trip from abroad – she asked me the same old question, even after beholding my children, “So, do you have a job?” As I stared back blankly at her, and stated the obvious, “No, my children need me right now. They are very young,” she nodded, but without much approval, adding about her own son and daughter, “They both have completed their studies and now have jobs.” I went on to detail my freelance writing and part-time teaching work, but I had already lost both her interest and attention by revealing that I did not step out of the house each morning to go to my “job”.
It’s not just “fundo’s” like myself who have given corporate jobs the decisive boot to turn to freelancing in their chosen career; many women do the same, by choice or because of changed life circumstances. The biggest advantage of freelancing is that you take on assignments at your own pace, with flexible deadlines. What other “job” could a mother-of-two, for whom raising her children is a priority, really have? I mean, really? To say that she herself has been a stay-at-home housewife for most of her life just adds icing to the pathetic cake.
Those who need to work to support themselves or their families, or those who work to do what they love doing (be it art or social welfare), or those who work for other legible motives – are of course, not the target of my criticism here. I respect their choice, and empathize.
My source of chagrin is the attitude of those people who expect me to work, or to have any kind of occupation that would fit the description of a (paying) “job”, even though it’s not something I want.
Why do people expect me to earn money, just because it’s what they desire? If everyone had such measly motives in life, where would all the social-change producing leaders, thinkers, philosophers and revolutionaries come from? It is they who pave the way for mankind to progress, to brainstorm long-term solutions to global problems, to work towards resolving ethnic and political conflict and strife; and they do it by selflessly serving others, working hard to materialize dreams and national or global goals directed towards social and/or political betterment.
If earning money just for the sake of earning money, for sounding and looking like a professional, for whiling away the time until matrimony, for having an impressive designation, or for pleasing people who desire to see you become “something”, was the goal of every individual who was young and able, mankind would never be able to benefit from the one-in-a-million kind of selfless, sacrificing individuals, who rise above personal gain and worldly status, to actually do something for the rest of humanity; not for the paycheck!
“The best among you are the ones who gain knowledge of the Quran and teach it (to others).”
– Prophet Muhammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم]
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 545)
Coming back to my story. After I finished my Diploma Course and faced the “fork in my path”, so to speak – to either return to my forsaken career, or do what I really wanted to do – I took the more pleasurable and self-satisfying, but difficult, path. I started work first as a content developer and later on as a teacher at Al-Huda.
To pathetically confirm to world-wise people who asked me, “Oh but I’m sure what you are doing is voluntary work, isn’t it?” that yes, I had chosen to forfeit monetary pay as compensation [as if there can ever be any measurable compensation for teaching others the Deen! Isn’t the sense of closeness to Allah, the immense inner peace and satisfaction of the soul enough? Apparently not] was just one of the irritating obstacles I faced in my chosen work.
The passage of my early twenties in full hijab also made everyone all the more intent on deciding that I was to be married off as soon as possible, because I was “doing voluntary work”, and therefore, was a financial burden on my parents; besides, who’d want to marry a black-sack anyway?
Now, when I look in retrospect at those indecisive years of my early twenties, of my first hesitant footsteps on the path of seeking Islamic knowledge and doing da’wah, of my uncertainties about whether I will ever fulfill my dream and be able to prove those wrong who were certain that “This girl has gone to waste by becoming a mullani; only a Maulvi will marry her!”, I smile, but the memories are bittersweet.
I feel thankful to Allah that He pulled me through and gave me everything I wanted, and more; but I also feel some pity for those who doubted that someone who chose to relinquish so-called worldly success, the open display of womanly youth and beauty, and a “hefty” paycheck, in order to not just do what she wanted to do, but what was better, would be left in the lurch by Allah and would get nothing in life except failure and social isolation.
Would I trade my knowledge of Deen, my sporadic da’wah work, my tranquil home, two amazing children, religious husband, personal independence, and weekday morning “me-time”, in return for the glitz and glamour of a corporate job?
Not a chance! 🙂