In her final post, Dr Noreen Mirza, reflects on the strength and resilience of women across the generations that she met during her research.
We have all come across middle-aged and elderly Pakistani women in Britain, in traditional dress, going about their daily life, at the supermarket, waiting for a bus, at the doctor’s surgery. Many people may assume that these women are perhaps submissive, trapped in a patriarchal culture, not integrated into British way of life. These are typically negative stereotypes created by the media, greatly influencing the general public.
It may not cross people’s mind that many of these women are responsible for the socio-economic mobility of the next generation of British-Pakistanis. The media does not seem to show interest in the number of successful British-Pakistani women and the factors contributing to their success. The women in my study credited their mothers for achievements in their education and career. They considered their mothers as their role model and inspiration in life. The mothers wanted their daughters to be good wives, mothers, students, professionals, citizens and friends, and to earn the benefits from these relationships and roles. Therefore, I felt it important to interview the mothers of some of my participants to find out how they raised their daughters to be confident, driven and competitive.
The mothers I had the opportunity to interview invited me into their homes. I was taken aback by their warmth and generosity as they welcomed me not as a researcher but as a friend of their daughter. I had merely visited for the purpose of interviewing, not as a guest. I was mindful that time was precious for the mothers I was interviewing, as they led busy lives either working, caring for family and grandchildren, taking religious classes, or other projects. Nonetheless, I was served lunch at each of the houses I visited. The mothers had gone to a lot of effort and I felt grateful for their time and hospitality.
Interviewing the mothers gave me an insight into their lives and as well as their life experiences. The mothers shared with me their experiences of moving to Britain from Pakistan. For some it was a lonely time, not knowing anybody in the new country and feeling isolated. The language, culture and way of life in Britain were ways which they were not accustomed to. Some of the women explained that household chores were laborious because in the early years of settling in Britain, many British-Pakistani families lived frugally and did not have amenities like washing machines, dishwashers and household appliances. Cooking from scratch and hand-washing clothes were time-consuming tasks. They worked at home in solitude, longing for the familiarity, friends and family they left behind, while their husbands worked long hours in manual jobs.
The mothers I interviewed were in their sixties and early seventies. They explained to me that when they were growing up in Pakistan it was the norm among conservative families like theirs for girls to be married in their late teens and early twenties. They were seldom involved with their own marriage arrangements and proposals were organised by parents. It was common practice for parents to accept a suitable spouse for their daughter early on, because of the fear that a delay may result in the prospective groom’s family looking elsewhere for a bride for their son. Therefore, many women of that generation did not get the opportunity to obtain a higher education as they were expected to get married instead.
Talking to the mothers, it became apparent to me to that they were incredibly driven. They had dreams and aspirations which had been curtailed by family and cultural obligations. They had ambitions to go to university and pursue a career instead of being tied down with the responsibility of marriage, in-laws and children at a young age. Growing up in Pakistan, they had looked to their female teachers, heroines in books and female doctors as role models, and explained that the society they belonged to expected women to obey cultural and family obligations.
Instead of abandoning their dreams, they relived them through their daughter’s achievements. The mothers showed support, invested time in their daughters to help them succeed. Although many of the mothers did not study beyond high school, nonetheless their aspirations and the value they placed on education was sufficient for their daughters to succeed in their own education and career. They wanted their daughters to complete their education and to be on a career path before getting married; encouraging their daughters to have a career which would offer them financial independence and security.
The common thread between all the mothers I interviewed was resilience, patience and determination. What they had learnt from their own experiences was precisely what they were passing on to their own daughters. Daughters were inspired by their mother’s courage in stepping out of their comfort zone to learn about British culture in order to understand their children’s world, which was so different from their own. When their children were young, mothers expressed their love through affection, nurture and food. As they grew older, mothers became ‘friends’ to their daughters- listening to them, taking an interest in their life, instilling them with confidence, security and self-belief.
Veiled sentiments. Honour and poetry in a Bedouin society. L. Abu-Lughod (2000)
Arabs in America: Building a new future. M. W. Suleiman (1999)
Dr Noreen Mirza
Dr Mirza’s full PhD thesis will be available to read in our library soon.