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Pakistan _ Two families, two worlds

August 9, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ The traditional Muslim women who spend their days washing clothes by hand and sewing may seem to share little with their urban counterpart, a Muslim woman who was able to study and become a doctor. An Associated Press reporter took a closer look at these two faces of Pakistan, and found the women’s assessments of their country as it marks 50 years of independence are surprisingly similar. They worry over the opportunities for education for their children and share a sense that leaders have betrayed Pakistan’s promise. Their nation is riven by poverty, illiteracy and social tension. But the village matriarch and the city doctor have not given up hope.

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By GRETCHEN PETERS

Associated Press Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Her 85 years have given Razia Nabi knowledge, if not literacy. Though she never received formal education, she made sure her daughter attended elementary school and hopes one day to see her granddaughters complete high school.

Begum Nabi, a Pakistani term for matriarch, presides over a family of 24 in Saidpur, a poor village barely a half-mile from some of Islamabad’s richest neighborhoods _ enclaves where day-to-day survival may be easier but many of the concerns are the same.

Like many wealthy families, Dr. Humaira Aziz, 42, and her husband have been able to send their son and two daughters to private school. Still, they worry about Pakistan’s other children and what will become of them.

Only 30 percent of the 140 million Pakistanis are literate, with the rate even lower for women.

Aziz says that during its 50 years as a nation, Pakistan has been cheated by its leaders, who have kept millions of people poor and uneducated.

The conservative generals who ruled Pakistan for half those years strayed from the notion put forward by its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, of a secular state for Muslims of the subcontinent, she says.

``Our government doesn’t seem to identify education as the main engine for getting the country moving,″ said her husband, Saleem.

Begum Nabi considers Mohammed Ali Jinnah her hero. Unfortunately, his death soon after Pakistan’s birth was followed by a series of weak leaders, three wars with neighboring India, and decades of economic hardship.

She fears that the struggle to survive may press her granddaughters into sewing instead of studying.

The women in her family sell embroidery work to local shops to augment the $195 combined income brought home by her four sons. Begum Nabi’s 82-year-old husband, Ghulam, is a retired shoemaker.

The elderly matriarch sat on a patch of red and orange linoleum that covers the cement floor, as she talked of her fears for the future.

``Life is so expensive we don’t have time for good memories or dreaming,″ she said.

Though she wants an education for the younger women, her family generally sticks to a traditional lifestyle that has changed little since Saidpur was founded in the Moghul era, centuries before Islamabad was created in the 1960s as the capital of Pakistan.

The women spend most of their time doing housework. They wash clothes by hand in tin basins, cook over rudimentary gas stoves, and sweep the rooms with straw brooms. Men do the shopping because the women don’t venture out in public alone.

Six-year-old Saba, one of the grandchildren, loves to draw, and dreams of owning crayons. The local elementary school has provided her with one book, a Pakistani history text she can nearly recite by heart.

Humaira Aziz dreams of launching a campaign to reform the public schools, which she says focus too much on ``reciting books by heart, but not really knowing the subject.″

Private school prepared her for medical school with a hands-on approach she’d like to see implemented in Pakistan’s public schools.

Aziz’ 18-year-old daughter, Seher, will go to Vermont this fall to study architecture at Bennington College. Her little sister, 10-year-old Shezere, dreams of studying dentistry in the United States.

But no one in the Aziz family has any plans to leave for good. Pakistan is their homeland and they say it is a land of opportunity.

``There’s always something to be done here and you can be the one to do it,″ Aziz said.

Opportunities are more limited for Begum Nabi’s family, especially the women, who expect to spend most of their lives within the stone walls of the small family compound.

``Unmarried girls are not allowed to mingle outside the family. Once married, then a woman is free to go out with her husband,″ Begum Nabi said sternly.

Arranged marriages are still the rule in this household, where most of the young girls are married to second cousins because expensive dowry isn’t required for such unions.

Humaira Aziz and her husband only laugh when asked if they would try to arrange their children’s marriages. They also see nothing wrong with boys and girls spending time together as friends.

She remembers when things were freer _ before Islamic fundamentalism was used as an excuse for strict social controls. In the 1950s and ’60s, she and her friends could visit restaurants, discos and nightclubs.

Today, dating is frowned upon and sex outside marriage is illegal. Pakistani police often stop boys and girls who go out unescorted and demand to see marriage certificates or identification to show they are related.

``You can’t really tell them you’re just hanging out,″ Seher Aziz said.

In the Nabi family, some of the women wish things could be different.

As Shahera, Begum Nabi’s 32-year-old daughter said: ``There are two things that dictate a girl’s status in life: money and education. If she lacks both, she’s nowhere in the world.″

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