Questioning Empowerment: Pakistani Women, Higher Education & Marriage
Bhatti, Madiha J.
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation investigates the recent women's higher education movement in Pakistan, the sense of empowerment it inculcates in educated women and the cultural limitations many experience because restrictive ideologies of honor persistently hinder women's progress. My analysis draws from data collected during my dissertation fieldwork in Lahore, Pakistan between December 2007 and August 2008, at four colleges and universities. With a qualitative study I interviewed 198 women, enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate academic program, to examine the driving force behind the women's higher education movement. I aimed to understand women's aspirations, experiences and benefits through higher education. Women associated education with increased awareness, more confidence and personal growth, which I define as empowerment. But I also question this form of empowerment because education is a byproduct of the parental desire to increase a woman's marriageability. Marriage is a practice in which women have little input. In fact, increased marriageability is a familial investment to increase a daughter's value so that parents can practice a greater level of control during the marriage exchange process. My analysis to question empowerment is grounded in two questions: 1) how do women mediate and reconcile with various power structures while in public, social and academic settings? 2) Is there a shift in women's outlooks and perceptions about traditional customs and practices such as arranged marriages with the onset of education, access to mobility and exposure to other forms of realities? My findings reveal that the real empowerment for educated Pakistani women is securing a more advantageous space within a male-dominated system because an educated woman is more likely to marry into a good family; she is given more value, perceived by society as more valuable and holds more prestige. This is a notable feat in the Pakistani society where a woman is considered inherently inferior. Change and empowerment are questionable beyond this feat. Women constantly experience gender discrimination while pursuing higher education. Though women are beginning to question male-dominance, most rarely challenge oppressive customs such as arranged marriages or the inability to work after graduation. Furthermore, women internalize, embody and reinforce the very ideals that perpetuate gender discrimination where strict gender dichotomies relegate women to stereotypical social demands. Mobility is allowed with stricter standards of decency and modesty. My investigation suggests that little has changed for women because obedience is the only option. Parents demand obedience, the social framework demands obedience and other women demand obedience. Disobedience is not tolerated and is punished. Throughout the dissertation, I repeatedly make the argument that it matters little why education is being promoted or what kinds of barriers women face because women's higher education is a good thing. It is a positive step in the right direction. If this movement is expanded to a broader scale, it can have wide-ranging implications for women's progress in the coming decades.