Sahar: The difficult decisions of Culture vs Career


Getting married is one of life’s major decisions, and getting married to someone you met one week before the wedding date gives it a greater edge. But then to leave your home country to live with your new partner, and to give up your hard-earned professional career, as well, are decisions that few would even contemplate.

Sahar was born in 1988, in Karachi, Pakistan to a normal family. Her parents made sure she was well educated and allowed her to pursue a profession that would fulfil her as a person. Her decision was to enter University and to study Architecture which was a 5 year course and very demanding. After graduating, she joined a firm specializing in Project Management for Construction. This gave her all of the opportunities to be involved in project co-ordination, site management and the variety of tasks and responsibilities necessary to gain experience and consolidate her academic study. It was a high-pressure, and fast paced environment in one of Pakistan’s main cities.

One might think that a Muslim Pakistani woman in Architecture would be an unusual situation and typical of someone who was breaking the mould -reacting against tradition and conformity. In part this might have been true, but fundamentally Sahar was traditional and respectful of the cultural norms in her country. As she passed graduation, the time was right for the family to consider her marriage and, for her, it would be an arranged marriage. For many of us in the UK who are brought up with the “freedom of choice” of a “love marriage” then the notion of our parents having discussions about our future, meeting with friends and relatives to find a match is an alien concept – it almost feels antiquated and over-controlling. I was curious how Sahar, an intelligent woman, could reconcile this position with the freedom she had enjoyed in deciding her career. She explained:

“At that particular time in a person’s life I think you are ruled by a lot of emotions and you are not as clear-headed as you imagine yourself to be and you do not have the experience of judging people. So I think it’s best if your elders who have had more experience of life, and that have met more people and are a better judge of character than you are, are involved. It is something that is done with mutual agreement – and they put up a candidate in front of you and tell you why they think that person is a better match for you than the rest. And if you go along with that, and you are ok with it, then there is nothing wrong with an arranged marriage. In fact the percentage success is higher with arranged marriages”

I always wondered what it would be like if it transpired that the two people just didn’t get on, or simply didn’t find each other attractive. Could it all deteriorate in the first few weeks?

“When you are in a love marriage you put too much pressure on yourself and the other person because you are solely responsible for that decision and you are reluctant to back out on what initially you thought it should be like. In an arranged marriage, you go into it with an open mind, you know that you do not know everything about that other person, so you have the demeanour, you have the understanding that it is going to develop and change…..For us it takes time, it takes patience. In an arranged marriage you do not have that pre-set conception about what the other person should be. You are more open towards them and you let them develop in their own way and let their true personality come out and you let your own true personality come out. There is less deceit in there, less expectations in there – that is one of the core reasons why it has higher success rates.”

One of the key points I appreciated from these comments is that the whole family becomes part of the research into the quality of the match – making sure that both sides have similar values, aspirations, cultural commitment, views on religion etc. As so many people are involved in the arrangement, then they all have a commitment to making sure that the marriage is a success. It is not just 2 people on their own, but a union with a broad support infrastructure. And the family are there to help if the couple are in dispute:

“If we are going through a very difficult problem and both of us are not willing to give up then he will talk to his parents, I will talk to mine, and they, as a family will influence us to work something out together. And it is their responsibility to make sure that we work it out…and it helps us as well, as they tell us their examples, their life stories, their experiences as to how they got out of similar situations and that would enable us to see things that we would not normally have been seen by ourselves.”

The parents act as mediators at the request of the couple, and only at their request. Sahar would be the first to point out that not all families, couples and marriages follow the same principles as her own. Some would be more traditional and conservative and giving less choice to the woman, and others more liberal, even allowing “love marriages”. This is her story.

Although she had a right of veto, she also recognised that she had to make compromises. She wanted a man who was well-educated, with a good background. She would have preferred someone living in Pakistan – on this she had to compromise.

He husband who gained a Doctorate at the University of Manchester, teaches Mechanical Engineering at Derby University. After their wedding, Sahar gave up her career in Architecture, and joined her husband in their new home in Derby in June 2013. A new husband, a new country, a new home, new people and no job. Initially, the lack of a job felt like a well-earned holiday, and it also gave her the opportunity to develop her relationship with her husband. However after nearly a year her desire to start contributing and exercising her skills became a major draw.

Unfortunately for Sahar, the UK Architecture profession does not recognize the qualifications that she gained in Pakistan. This is centred on the difference in building regulations and construction styles; this meant that getting a job in Derby, similar to the one in Pakistan was almost impossible without further academic study to “convert” her to the UK qualification. This would take time and money.

In order to get herself into UK working, to meet people, and to begin to contribute, Sahar took up a number of voluntary posts – at Jobs, Education and Training (JET), Community Action and the Royal Derby Hospital.

Moving to Derby was not a major upheaval culturally for Sahar. If anything it was a step-down from the frantic world of Karachi. She was surprised to see so many Pakistanis and Muslims but felt that they had remained relatively self-contained within specific areas and that even now they would still not be well-suited to living in the general population.

“It is surprising that they have not made an effort in themselves to achieve a level of integration into this community. So if I am able to help them, with my background, then I want to be able to do that….that is why I enjoy working as a volunteer”

It is clear that she cannot remain as a volunteer for long, and whether she has a family, or goes to University to study Architecture, or finds a different type of job will be the major decisions in the next few years.

I put it to her:

“You made such a massive step in order to get married – so the marriage is the most important part of your life, as it outweighs your career. So would it be right to say then that where you are in 5 to 10 years’ time, will be defined by where your relationship goes rather than where your job goes”

“Yes – definitely”

Somehow I think there will be a few more difficult decisions on the way.

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