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A Pakistani Woman Takes on American Business

From our KAS Industry Research Specialist, Saba Ahmed…

Growing up in Pakistan, education has always at the very top of my parents’ priority list. In the 1980s, a Pakistani woman who did well in school seemed to have only one obvious path: medical school. Such was my mother’s destiny. She toiled away at her books for years, had an arranged marriage with a Pakistani banker, immigrated to the United States, and worked for several years as a resident at a Brooklyn hospital. Then came the second topmost item on that wonderful list of priorities: motherhood. After completing her residency, she decided to take a year or two off, away from the field, to devote her time and attention to raising her two daughters. As time went on, two children became three, and one or two years became five, then ten. My mother never went back to work. Every time she stressed the importance of education to us, I always wondered why she had thrown away hers.

Time and time again I saw the same thing happen to many of my female, Pakistani-American friends and cousins. After dedicating an immense amount of time and money to a professional degree, they resorted to the traditional role of a mother and housewife. Yet, their education-obsessed parents were entirely satisfied, for their daughter had essentially “become” a doctor.

But what does it mean to “become”  something? Passing exams? Getting a degree?

I grew up with this example set before me, and knew from a young age that I would feel no greater sense of accomplishment than if I completely defied it. I did not want a “degree,”  I wanted a career. I soon realized that I had a wealth of options open to me. Gone were the days when there was an obvious path for a woman to take. While I knew my parents secretly hoped I would want to be a doctor, I also knew that they would support me no matter what. To me, the answer was clear; I would be a businesswoman. There was something highly appealing about the idea of marching into a conference room in a pencil skirt and high heels, ready to give a presentation about our company’s latest revenue generating scheme to a group of men (and other women). It was a thought that inspired passion within me, a type of passion my mother never felt for medicine.

Perhaps my passion was motivated by my mother’s very lack thereof: the thought that I was doing something that she never imagined she could. I saw an opportunity to pursue a path that was still atypical of women of my culture and background. The business world was one in which the quiet, polite, subdued Pakistani girl would need to become the outspoken, competitive, businesswoman. I would not just get a degree; I would become something.

It was this aspect of business that led me to choose the career path that I took: it was empowering. Power is something that many women from the male-dominated Muslim countries do not hold a lot of. It is the man who makes decisions. He is always the stronger, always the wiser, and always the leader. In fact, in Pakistan, women often feel obliged to subdue themselves next to their male counterparts. They seldom find themselves in leadership roles, as having a female “boss” will often make a Pakistani man uncomfortable, if not completely insulted. It is a country in which the system almost discourages women from pursuing challenging career options by limiting the number of seats available for them in certain degree programs. In recent years, as Pakistan strives to stray away from its traditional patriarchal culture and give women equal opportunity, many of these rules have changed. Their underlying ideologies, though, will take much more time to break down.

In the American world of business, countless women have risen up to be leaders in this cutthroat industry. These women, to me, are fearless. They inspire me the way I hope my aspirations will, one day, inspire Pakistani women to be just as fearless, to become not something but someone.

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