By Amy Brown-Bowers
Farheen Kamal couldn’t take it anymore. The chilling stares at family dinners were getting to her. Her father’s silence was worse than any shouting match she had had to defend herself in. her family couldn’t deal not being the model Muslim Pakistani girl. Because they could not understand where she was coming from, the family had no trouble articulating their anger over her “deviant” behavior.
Because Farheen is Canadian, her behavior, which includes dating, pre-marital sex and bar-hopping doesn’t seem deviant to the average observer.
But religious members of the Muslim community, including her family, were scandalized when she first started dating.
News of her lifestyle filtered back to Pakistan, where it dripped acid-like on her grand parents’ reputation in their extensive family.
Across contents, Farheen felt their influence trying to shape her existence in Toronto.
She heard from relatives about how her life might dishonor her family. Her maternal grandparents exerted pressure on Farheen’s mother, who remains their obedient daughter.
But something recoiled inside Farheen at the thought of being brought up as her mother had been. She didn’t want to be a bird in a cage. In fact, her mother raised her to “be different, to get an education, exposure to the world and even work.” Working means exposure, exposure means thinking on your feet in an unprotected environment and that cultivates independence in a girl.
Independence is an undesirable trait in the eyes of a prospective mother-in law who will inevitably go from home to Muslim home in search of a perfect girl for her son.
“The perfect girl listens to her parents and has no opinion of her own, then…gets married to who (her parents) choose for her,” Farheen said. “My mom was exactly like that (growing up).”
Her mother was married at 17 to a man her mother chose for her, and had her first child at 18. She strictly observed religious and cultural convention: she was always home by maghrib (a prayer that marks the sunset), and never mentioned sex. In fact, she didn’t even tell an adolescent Kamal what getting her period entailed.
In August 1997 when she was barely 17, Farheen’s family immigrated to Canada from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The luxurious living in Dubai doesn’t make up for the fact that you cannot get nationality no matter how long you live there and your children are ineligible for post-secondary education.
Farheen had just graduated from high school and her three younger siblings weren’t too far behind.
Ahsan Kamal, Farheen’s father, helped the family settle in, then returned home to his job in Dubai.
By October, her mom was calling Dubai, pleading to be allowed to return home.
With everyphone call she’d say, “I’m coming back. I’ve had enough. I don’t want to live in Canada.”
It was hard for her to settle into the country without her husband on whom she was used to depending for decision-making. And she yearned for the company of her sisters and like-minded friends.
Then her mother did something completely uncharacteristic. She sold all their two-month old furniture, broke their lease, and went back to Dubai without waiting for her husband’s okay.
Six months later, Kamal decided he’d invested too much in the immigration process to give it up. The documents alone cost him $8,000 U.S. May 1998, he quit his “cushy” job as marketing manager of an oil company and the whole family immigrated to Canada.
“My mom basically put her foot down and said, ‘I’m not leaving without you. Either you come or I’m staying here,’” Farheen said.
She came to Canada hoping to go to Ryerson. But as an immigrant whose foreign qualifications weren’t recognized by potential employers, her father had a hard time finding a job, so she went to work to compensate.
“Everything was hard here, working, waking up…jumping into the rat race,” she said.
As it is the custom in most countries, including Canada, the man is the income source in a traditional Pakistani family. The roles were reversed.
Farheen worked the phones at a local telemarketing sweatshop and made manager within a few months. Her father felt his role as patriarch weaken within the family.
No longer was he no longer providing for his family, his child was making up for what he saw as his shortcomings in the new environment he hoped one day to call home.
“Over here when you come down…you have to start over…you have to start right at the bottom,” Kamal said.
It was hard for her to watch Kamal work the same jobs that teenagers worked.
“He did odd jobs here and there, newspaper stands, magazine stores,” Farheen said.
Eventually, he bought and operated a newspaper kiosk in Brampton. In September 2000, Kamal finally started classes at Ryerson.
She commuted from Brampton for the first month, which meant leaving home by 5:45 a.m. for her 8 a.m. classes. It was a punishing schedule and she calls it “the biggest mistake of my life.”
After a month of commuting, a frustrated Farheen moved away from home, and in with her boyfriend.
The move brought her downtown to a double room in the College Residence building at Bay and Gerrard streets. It was a luxury to be able to stumble out of bed, into the shower and over to class. The move also shoved her into the line of fire as far as her family was concerned.
Members of their community had solid proof she was “behaving badly.” She was breaking religious and cultural rules.
It sends a message to other Muslim kids in the community that her violation of Muslim tradition is alright, some critics said. They saw a whole traditional way of life being eroded by Farheen’s one decisive move.
And she wouldn’t have it any other way even though the consequences were dire.
“My dad wouldn’t talk to me (for over a year) because I was doing something that was disrespectful to him, his family, his traditions and his culture,” Farheen said.
“My mom just blamed it all on Canada…I think she just thought, this is what (coming to) the country’s done to my kids,” she said.
Living downtown wasn’t easy. To pay the bills, Farheen worked five grave-yard shifts a week at Kinko’s while attending class three afternoons a week. She desperately wanted to stay in school and get her bachelor’s degree.
She kept cutting back her course load till she dropped out and took on longer hours. Financial support from her family was out of the question.
After living together for two and a half years, Farheen and her boyfriend Cyrus decided to get married.
The decision triggered more conflict. For one thing, Farheen’s income supports Cyrus. For another, Cyrus was catholic while Kamal’s family is Muslim.
To her grandparents, it was proof that Farheen’s parents had failed.
Farheen’s parents felt escalating pressure from her grandparents, who traditionally play a substantial part in the proposal-marriage process, to somewhat stall or stop what they thought was a travesty from happening.
“My mom came out and said ‘no,’” Farheen said.
Her parents told her “he converts (to Islam) or you don’t marry him,” she said.
Cyrus won over Farheen’s dad during a post-dinner conversation in their backyard, but winning over her mom was more difficult, because she would have had to face her own parents and justify her approval of Cyrus.
According to professor Judith Bernhard “many children and adolescents are caught between two worlds (because of) the way the world has developed, families are dispersed geographically” cheap telephone calls, internet, help people be involved in their children’s lives.
Through the early childhood education program, Bernhard came across children who were having disciplinary problems at school. She said her colleagues developed strategies to help them stay in school and were confounded when guardians couldn’t implement the plans.
Bernhard didn’t realize that many of the key decision makers in these children’s lives were in other countries. After conducting research the team confirmed that the phenomenon is an emerging pattern in Canadian society. She presented her research about transnational families: families living in different countries that interact on a daily basis, on campus last month.
“Family back home affects decisions parents (or guardians) here make,” which is a big phenomenon in the U.S., and Bernhard’s research will explore the scope of the situation in Canada.
Bernhard feels it would have helped Farheen stay in school if she had “a role model who had had to negotiate the two worlds,” as she did because “it puts into question (her) assumptions about gender roles and the role of religion in daily life.”
Bernhard also won a Fulbright scholarship to teach children who speak a language other than English in the context of today’s multicultural society.
The pressures Farheen’s parents felt are on small example of a phenomenon that operates in a city like Toronto, where 80 per cent of the population is born in another country. Many of them maintain their ties in their country of origin, which means that social values in that society make their way across the continents over to Canada in the form of cultural baggage that immigrants bring.
“The biggest thing (for my mom) was ‘how are your grandparents going to take this,’” Kamal said.
Farheen and Cyrus couldn’t even consider marriage because her mother kept their relationship a secret for as long as she could. As the rebel who basically screwed up her dreams of a granddaughter getting married to a proper grand-son in-law who’s Muslim and earns a lot, Kamal said.
Farheen’s grandmother was used to match-making. She could not understand why she could not be entrusted with the task of choosing for her.
She tried to explain, but being in love didn’t count. Love is a vague concept that is not very culturally important in Pakistan, according to Farheen. The key to success and status in Muslim Pakistani society is finding someone of the proper religious and ethnic background, who also happens to be well endowed on the financial front.
Getting married gets you brownie points too. Farheen’s relationship with her parents improved after her wedding.
“It was almost like, ‘OK, you did something that was bad and now you’ve corrected it and so now we love you more for it,’” she said.