‘Mothers can be the secret key to change’

Her Choice PhD candidate Nashia Ajaz is part of the research team that examines the impact of Her Choice in our ten programme countries. Ajaz wants to know how women’s empowerment and gender equality programmes relate to early marriage decision-making within families in Pakistan. Her field location was a village in the province of Punjab. We asked her five questions about her research. Part one of a series of interviews with Her Choice researchers.

Did you encounter difficulties conducting your research as a ‘modern’ Pakistani woman in a traditional village?

This was my first visit to a village ever, and growing up in the capital city, my life had been very different than the village life. So, I had to make an orientation visit, and then I practiced Punjabi language, and re-designed my wardrobe according to the village lifestyle. I was underestimating the fieldwork, and when I was in the field, it was totally like a new planet. Being a woman, who was a divorced single mother, I had to make-up an imaginary husband who works in the city, because otherwise it would have been very difficult for me to gain trust of my participants, as divorce is still a taboo in Pakistan, and always a woman’s mistake.’

You state that ‘the idea of gender equality is very unacceptable and ‘western’ according to the participants, whereas, the notion of women’s empowerment is acceptable, but within ‘Islamic’ limits.’  What does women’s empowerment within ‘Islamic’ limits’ looks like?

‘When I say ‘Islamic’ limits, in commas, it means the participants’ interpretations of the religion Islam. According to them, Islam does not allow women to go outside their houses, for education or for work. While I disagree with this interpretation of ‘Islam’ I write these ‘Islamic’ limits in commas. Their definition of women’s empowerment within the limits of ‘Islam’ means that women stay at home and get everything they need within the house. Moreover, a lot of my participants mentioned that they really like the idea that girls get (formal) education, but at the same time, they seemed to question my presence in the village for the purpose of writing a book, and how (un)masculine my husband and father are who sent me this far for writing.’

Nashia Ajaz together with her daughter Sajjal during her research

‘College education came out as a bridge between early marriage and women’s empowerment’, you state. Could you explain that?

‘In Pakistan, schools end after the 10th class, which means children are roughly 15-16 years of age when they finish school. While in almost every village, there is a school, colleges are usually further. A lot of people in the village choose not to send their girls to college because of the distance, and because it is expensive for some to arrange the transport. So, a lot of girls stay at home after they finish their school, even if they were doing well in the school. Generally, in the village, it was not considered appropriate to keep a girl unmarried when she has finished her education, so the girls who don’t go to college are more likely to get married earlier, as compared to the girls who take admission in college. Therefore, my research finds out that college education not only delays girls’ age of marriage, but also gives them a chance for higher education and paid employment and makes their ‘empowered’ financially as well as socially.’

You notice that grandparents, especially paternal grandmothers have the power to influence most of the decisions taking place in the family, including those related to (early) marriage. Should there be more emphasis on focusing on sensitizing grandmothers? Could that be the ‘secret key’?

‘While my data show that paternal grandmothers had the power to initiate and pursue (early) marriage decisions, I had also observed that grandmothers and other participants of their generation were the most rigid in their believes and practices, and they were the hardest to change. Therefore, I would say, the mothers, who are the grandmothers of the future, can be the best to be sensitized, and considered the ‘secret key’ to change. Sensitizing the mothers is also important because my data show that the mother of the groom also has the power to influence the ‘appropriate’ time of marriage.

What was your biggest personal lesson during your research?

‘I went to the field with a lot of pre-conceived notions about, for example, illiterate people, and I somehow went with the idea that I am better than them. I also had concerns related to hygiene for myself and my daughter, who was also with me during the fieldwork. But after spending some days there, I realized that I was so wrong. People who were lesser ‘literate’ than me taught me hospitality and respect. We were offered fresh pure milk, vegetables, and the best food they could afford, even by the people who we were meeting for the first time. People, who were struggling to meet their day-to-day needs, used to bring food and gifts for us. It was an experience that I could never feel growing up in a city. This made me realize that even if someone has less ‘formal’ education, they still have a lot to teach.’

‘Analyzing the relationship between Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Policies and Projects on Familial Decisions about Early Marriages- A Feminist Research’ by Nashia Ajaz

Her Choice seeks to examine the impact of the six Her Choice strategies on preventing and reducing the prevalence of child marriage in the different programme countries. A key goal of research is to determine which (combination of) strategies seems to be effective, and why. The Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is the research partner of the Her Choice programme. The Her Choice research team is composed of three senior researchers (Dr. Winny Koster, Dr. Esther Miedema and Dr. Nicky Pouw), two junior researchers (Albena Sotirova and Philippe Meyer), two PhD candidates (Rashmila Shakya and Nashia Ajaz), and numerous UvA MSc and Research Master students. In addition to the impact evaluation, the AISSR team is carrying out in-depth qualitative research, including two doctoral studies (in Nepal and Pakistan), and MSc and Research MSc studies.