Tahira Rahman comes from Pakistan. I met her crossing the road in Bantry. She had two children with her, one in a pram. She wore a headscarf and distinctive dress, and on impulse I stopped to talk to her. She was very receptive and friendly, agreeing to meet me for an interview later in the week. A few days later, I met her at her house. That day, she wore her long black hair loose and uncovered. She is pretty, with strong, black eyebrows. Her left nostril is adorned with a gold and ruby stud. Not realising it was Ramadan (*Muslim fasting period, lasting approximately one cycle of the moon), I accepted her offer of tea and biscuits, and then felt bad, drinking in front of her when she couldn’t join me. From daybreak to sunset, not even a sip of water can pass her lips.
I come from a village in the North West of Pakistan, near Peshawar. But I was actually born in England. My parents were doctors there. When I was five, we returned to Pakistan. I got married there at the age of 22, to my cousin. It was arranged when I was 14. I knew him and liked him. But once we got engaged I stopped talking to him. That’s a tradition, like, you know. So sisters and mothers would be ringing on our behalf. I was so shy, I couldn’t talk. Even my father told me I should try to talk more. We don’t go for outings as you do. People in Islamabad and Karachi are more like that. They speak and go for outings. But this area you know, the North West province, which is on the border with Afghanistan – near the Khyber Pass – is very conservative.
That’s where the recent earthquake was?
It was a bit further north. Sunday it happened. But they are saying that the earth is trying to settle down, so there will be more earthquakes.
Is your family alright?
Yes, they’re fine, but they’re terrified. We ring them. They’re scared for their lives. Like especially in the night time when they go to sleep. They have bought all these tents and they are trying to avoid the buildings. Not going inside at all. So the little children are getting sick with pneumonia, because of the cold weather coming in, in November particularly. It’s not a good situation.
They wouldn’t think of evacuating?
They have come to different places like Islamabad and Pindi, but still there are people who don’t want to leave their own homes, their place, to be homeless. They don’t want to leave their roots. They know they live in the dangerous part now, with landslides coming in, and snow is there. People don’t know why they stay, why they don’t come to safer places.
When you were growing up, did you experience earthquakes?
Yes, I did. But not as big as this one. This is the first time there’s been a massive earthquake. It’s a terrible feeling when you’re there. I was different ages when it happened: 5, 7, 10, 15. It was small-scale. But the time it happened, it was terrifying. The earth is shaking and you just run for your life. You don’t care what you are wearing, where you are running. This time, there was no warning. It was all in seconds. I just imagined how those mothers were feeling. Getting their children. Whether they were ill, in bed. Whether they were pregnant. The earthquake lasted for about half an hour. Imagine that shaking, for so long.
Tell me about some of the customs in Pakistan.
We have many traditions in our culture. For example, our dress. What I’m wearing now is called a kamise, a traditional shirt. Sometimes it’s long, sometimes it’s shorter. Underneath, you wear a kind of trousers, called shalwar. You also cover your head with a scarf. We call it a butta. Especially when there are men, you have to cover your head. When I was a teenager, I used to wear it all the time. My religion is Islam, and in our religion, you have to keep covered. But if you’re at home, you can wear what you like. You can wear trousers even. But you have to follow the culture.
I have one brother. We were just two. I never spoke to other boys. In our culture, you just talk to relatives. When you reach puberty, parents restrict you. It’s automatically in your mind. It’s not that every time your mother or father is going to tell you what to do. You know it’s not good. And you don’t feel the urge. Why should I talk to them? And boys don’t come to your home, unless there is a father or brother. They don’t visit families when there are ladies in the home only.
When they come in, usually we are not allowed to answer the door. In the kitchen, we make food, and put it on the trays and the father takes the tray. And when they are going, the husband or brother, or father tells you to stay in that room, don’t come out. If someone forgets and walks out and a woman is standing there, she will feel awkward because she would always expect the brother or father to tell her that the man is coming, and to go into the next room. You would say to him, ‘I was standing here and the man came out and saw me like this. I wasn’t wearing my veil!’ I have seen so many men who, when they enter a home, they keep their eyes down. They’re not searching, because they know the culture. Of course, some men are not angels – men are men! – so sometimes it happens that they look.
Now there is co-education, and girls are going for jobs. They meet boys to a certain extent. If they want, they can go out. But it is a kind of fearful thing. What would your brother or family say if they saw you going with this guy? You have to first convince your family. Who is he, where does he come from? What are his intentions? Because people would start ribbing you. Even if you don’t do anything, people bring bad news to that girl or that boy.
I believe in the Muslim faith, a man can marry more than once?
Well, there are conditions. He can marry up to four women. But the conditions are he has to be able to keep the first wife to the same standard as the second wife. He can’t leave or divorce her, even if he is unhappy. Suppose he is in the office and he likes some secretary, and he falls in love and he wants to marry her, and that girl is interested. What happens is he has to convince his first wife, and you’d never get that consent from the first wife! If she did, then you have to have to provide clothes, money, all their expenses, for both, equally. So you can’t compromise that. But in love, it’s different. Say you are attracted maybe just to the second wife. That is something else, the relationship. But the deeds, you have to be kind, respect, take care of the children of both. If you can do that, fine, you can marry another one. But if you can’t do that, no. People don’t understand this, they are ignorant about Islam. Basically you have to treat them equally.
Do you know of any men who have married more than once?
Yes. My husband’s maternal uncle was 65 when he married a second wife. He was a grandfather actually. He had five daughters, no boy. He was looking for a son. This is a bad tradition in Pakistan. Many, many areas will have that. They say that the woman is responsible for the sex of the child. And it’s scientifically actually the man. It’s very harsh, and very rude to the woman.
So what happened, he waited all this time, and the daughters were grown up and married with their own children. And he married a girl aged 27, like that.
Of course, it wasn’t what he thought. Like, it’s from the godside. It’s in our religion that the god favours. It’s his choice to give a child. I felt very bad for the first wife. He married that woman and the first wife was shocked, annoyed, irritable. She said, ‘I want to kill my husband.’ And the daughters felt so bad. They didn’t want to talk to their father at all. But gradually, people came round. They saw there was no way out. He didn’t compromise her. He said to her, ‘OK, you are angry with me, but what will happen? I’m not letting you go anywhere.’
He made another section in the home, separate, a small kind of cottage, and he provided that to the second wife. He said to his first wife, ‘you can stay and you will enjoy the state, and I won’t leave you.’ So, still they are surviving. Also my feeling was for the second wife. Because whatever the first wife says, she will do that. She is controlling her. She is sitting in the same car. Basically it’s the first wife’s rules. So it’s difficult. For a man living with two wives, it’s difficult. He can try his best, but he can’t do equally. So that’s why the conditions are so strict. Sometimes I tease my husband and say, ‘oh, you’ll marry another one,’ and he says, ‘One wife is enough! I’m not going to ruin my life!’ You struggle enough.
How was your wedding day?
It was nice. I felt very, very nervous. When the day was approaching, all the time I was very anxious. Like you know, you don’t know that person. You haven’t talked to him. You’ve only seen him. You don’t know how you’ll manage. And actually we don’t have sex education. So girls usually come to know about that later, when they are in university faculties, you know. They don’t get it from their sisters or brothers, they just hear from their classmates. And then they are shocked. Is this going to happen to me? How will I manage? I’m not like that! And you know, all the time you are virgin. And you don’t feel that it’s going to happen with you. You are not happy with that.
If it is a love marriage, you will find it easy. But with an arranged marriage, no one likes that. Especially when the wedding day arrives, all the girls are very, very nervous. So what happens, they give us time, say two or three weeks. They don’t touch us at all, until we feel easy. But there are also men who are harsh and have to fulfil their desires, and they just go on. So this is a harsh reality to accept. You never know a man, and then suddenly he comes and lives in your life, like that. There’s no other way out, you can’t leave him. You know you are going to live with him all your life. But what I felt was, I was happy and at the same time I was nervous.
Tahira shows me her wedding album. There are many photographs of her wearing a fabulous red gown lavishly embroidered in gold thread. Her palms and the backs of her hands are hennaed ornately, and her make up is heavy, lips painted red. She is adorned with an abundance of gold jewellery. At the centre of her forehead rests a tika, a gold ornament. She sits on a platform, expression solemn. Compared to our virginal looking brides, (who are probably anything but,) it seems ironic to my western eyes that this bona fide virgin bride wears colours we would associate with a brothel.
After the wedding, we went on honeymoon, and it all happened there. We went to the northern area, where the earthquake happened. It was very hot that day. We went to his sister’s home. It’s all in ruins now. There’s nothing left there. It’s called Atakabar. His brother in law arranged a 4 x 4 vehicle for us to take to different places. We were there for about a week, maybe two. But it was good. We got to know each other.
He was a nice gentleman you know, but I was just scared. He was 26. Also a virgin.
Is it common for men to be virgins when they marry?
Most of the boys are virgins. Like my brother - he’s not married. He’s still a virgin. But there are men who have wives, and still they have extra-marital affairs. That type, I’m so angry with these people, why they are doing this. From the godside, it’s sinful, it’s adultery, and what about the wives? For me, it’s just unacceptable. But my brother is a virgin, and many people ask him, ‘What’s your plan?’ and he says, ‘I’m just waiting to go back to my country and marry a girl from there.’ He’s also living here, in Ireland. He’s 35 and still he has friends who are not married, who are going out and having relationships, at the same time having two, three, four, five girls. And he knows that. And they laugh at my brother, but he says, ‘No, I’m fine. I can’t be like an animal, going for my desires. I’ll wait and have a proper wedding. If I go for a girl, I’ll marry her.’
We told him for the past five or six years to get a wife, but he said, ‘No, I’m doing my exams. If I’m marrying a girl, I have to give her time.’ A doctor’s time is very busy. All these exams and time in hospital. And it is true. My husband, because he still has to do his exams, he can’t give me much time. He has to study, and I have to compromise. We can’t go on outings. He can’t give much time to the children. The doctor’s life is hard for the first few years.
But now my brother is looking for a bride and I’m going to go to Pakistan in November to help him. He is looking for a certain type of lady. He says, ‘I need really a housewife. Educated. She should have her Masters. Aged 23 or 24.’ He said he would like a nice lady, more feminine. Polite. There are people who are very harsh and rude. He doesn’t want that. He wants a humble kind of person. Not too much pretty. If you go for too much pretty, you have to compromise. The most pretty girls go into the medical profession!
Tell me a little about the history of Pakistan.
English ruled Pakistan and India. It was all one country, called the sub-continent. But in 1947, the English had ruled for 150 years, so after that they left, and separated the two countries. Kashmir was left. So the problem wasn’t solved. Kashmir is where the earthquake happened. One side is, which is called Free Kashmir, is ruled by the Pakistan government. Opposite side is ruled by the Indians. But those people all have the same culture, the food, everything is the same. It’s like Ireland and Northern Ireland. Irish and Irish! But one under the English government.
Historically, Muslims felt weak. There used to be a Mogul kingdom. Mogul was the king, and he had sons. One of these sons was called Akhbar. He brought some ideas from Hinduism and some from Islam and he mixed them together. And you can’t mix really. He was very much a womaniser. He was not a proper Muslim, just so-called. He was going all the wrong way. He enjoyed women. You can see his poetry in different restaurants.
So he had this state and enjoyed this state, and enemies were coming in, but he was all the time drinking. He wasn’t thinking, ‘What’s going on in my state?’ And the English people came in and they took over. They had this history of ruling. They ruled all over the world, Asia, Africa. So they discovered the sub-continent, and they thought, ‘we should go there.’ And they were making like tricks on the Hindus and Muslims, to turn them against each other. Before that they were at peace with each other. But then they started fighting each other, and fell apart.
The English brought many good things, like education and universities, architecture. I have no bad feelings against the English. That was history. There are many English still there. Convents and so on. I would say English people are very kind. Still there are flaws. But as humans, fine. They’re alright.
You grew up near the Afghan border? Were there many refugees from that country?
There are many Afghani women who have come to Pakistan. So many in school and at university. They were very, very poor people. When I go back to Pakistan I still have one Afghani lady who comes to me. She had a stillbirth. Then she got psychiatrically ill, and she also had an operation, and during that op the doctors mismanaged. They damaged the bladder, so she couldn’t control her urine. It just goes through the body. So that was a pity. Her husband is a heroin addict. And she is in a very bad condition. Before her operation, we used to help her with food and money, give her tea and comfort her. But now she’s very angry. She’s aggressive. She can hurt you. We can’t touch her. So we can’t help her. It’s like that. She’s not eager to go to the doctor. My father is a psychiatrist and said, ‘we’ll go,’ and she said no.
What did you study?
I studied psychology. I did Masters in my country. But here it’s only equivalent to a Bachelor’s. They say I have to go back to university and do two or three years. I tried one year and did a course in counselling, but they said this year the course is off the list. They don’t know when it’s going to happen. They say I have to go to Dublin. I did distance learning, but this course you have to do at university. I was going to do the two-year course, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.
When did you come to Ireland?
We moved to Ireland one year after we married, when I was 23. I’m 28 now. I was pregnant with my first daughter when we came, and I had her in Limerick hospital. My brother is a doctor, and came here for work. My husband is also a doctor. In Pakistan there are no opportunities for doctors and the wages are poor and we thought we can’t manage like that. And he needed to come for study. He wanted to do the MRCP * so he can become a consultant. You get it from the College of Physicians in Ireland. First you have to pass your English test. So he got that.Then he had to pass his Irish exam. As you do with the General Medical Council in England. It’s called PLAB in England, and Trask in Ireland. You have to be registered. Previously you used to pay for registration. Now there is a registration exam. It’s difficult, more difficult nowadays. So he did all this and passed. The Irish exam is valid for two years, and then it expires. So the post-grad is next. He’s trying his best.
I was keen to go to England because I had a British passport. But my brother was here, and he said it’s a good country and people are very loving. In England you have to struggle. ‘The Irish’, he said, ‘are quite simple. You will manage here. I am here, and I will support you. Your husband will be studying, and you will need help in every way. You’ll be all alone and there will be too much stress.’ So what he did was he found a flat and we came to Ennis, Co Clare first. We shared the rent. That time it was IR£475. We gave him half the money. So he helped us for 18 months while my husband did the exams. He passed all his exams in March/April, but he then had to wait for jobs to be advertised. The social welfare helped us. I was in maternity. Thank God to the Irish, they helped us in that way. Then he got a job and we let them know. They were saying, ‘Thank God you told us you can manage on your own. There are many people who carry on, even when they get a job’.
Latif got a job in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. We stayed there for ten months. Then he got another job in medicine in Co Monaghan. We stayed there for almost one and a half years. Then I was pregnant with my second baby and we came to Cork and he said, ‘OK, my next exams are coming up, I must study.’ So he took off work and stayed at home for six months to study. And it was hard, that exam. He didn’t go for a job. Latif found a place in Carrigaline. We stayed there for one and a half years, and Latif got a job working first at the Mercy, and then at the Infirmary.
After that, he got another job in Kilkenny. But this time I didn’t move, because I knew it was only for six months, and then what will happen? So I stayed in Cork. After six months, he got a job in Bantry hospital. And we came here. Now they are giving indications that he has been there for almost one year, so you must go. He is in GPT (General Practitioner Training). Moving around is alright now. It’s not new to us. But it’s hard for my kids. They have to move schools. And we don’t know where they will go. So it’s insecure. When we moved to Bantry, the children were in playgroup, it was fine. But now they are in schools. Now we will have to get new uniforms.
Why does Latif have to keep moving from job to job?
Because he is a junior doctor, they don’t treat them well. So we are living like travellers. Well, they live in caravans, it wouldn’t be nice, actually, but still like, it’s like that. He is doing an interview today in the radiation department in Cork. He will only get an answer in two or three weeks, or maybe a month.
We have plans to buy a house now. We are very insecure here, because you are renting and you know, my husband saying, my job is like that, but you can stay in one place. My brother has bought a house in Wilton, and he says it’s nice, owning your own home. You don’t know, God forbid, what will happen. God forbid something happens to your husband. At least with a home, you have a place.
Have you or Latif experienced racism?
Foreign doctors do experience different treatment. The best jobs are reserved for the Irish doctors. The leftovers go to the Indians, Africans, you know. Then there is the FPR, which is a fellowship, basically. They have given every FPR to the Irish, whether they are able or not. They have excluded all foreigners. If doctors want to become a consultant, they have to do this exam, but they are not going to be given to Pakistanis. They say, at the back, ‘Why should we give these seats to foreigners in our country? And anyway they will leave this country and the good will go back to their country. So we won’t waste our time. We’ll stick to our own.’ So there are very, very few consultancies going to outsiders.
Nurses in hospitals can also be racist. They will talk to Irish doctors politely, even if they are sometimes stressed. They know they can’t show a bad attitude, because the Irish doctors won’t take it from them. They will say, ‘Stop it, you can’t speak like that to me.’ But the doctors from India, Pakistan, Africa, even though they are registrars, they can’t reprimand the nurses, because they know the nurses will go and complain about them. So the nurses speak to them in a disrespectful way, and they have to take it. It’s humiliating for them.
In Monaghan they used to call me Romanian. And I used to feel bad and think why do they call me this. I’m not saying, God forbid, that Romanians aren’t good people, they are human after all. But I think here, there’s a more common perception here that Romanians do beg. And many Pakistani women say this, that Irish people mistake them for Romanians. Then I decided, ‘OK, I will leave my scarf, I won’t wear this.’ In that way, we would say, Irish people are not open-minded as the English. English people have seen a lot of cultures coming in. In Cork, you see people opening their minds. But in Bantry, in Monaghan, small places, this small-minded attitude happens more.
When I was in Monaghan, I was walking with my pram, and a 15-year-old boy was blocking my way. I said, ‘excuse me, please let me pass,’ and you know, he was with some schoolgirls, and he didn’t move. He just copied me. And made faces at me. And I felt bad. I said, “Look, I’m just asking you, excuse me. I have a pram.‘ When he didn’t stop, I rang the Gardaí, and he ran off. And the girls vanished too. The Gardaí came and comforted me and said, ‘Relax, what happened?’ I told them and said the boy was being racist towards me. The Garda went to investigate, then came back and said, ‘His parents will come to your home and apologise.’ But that never happened.
Mind you, when I talk about racism, you should come to my country. The problems between the Pashto and the Punjabi tribes. They are from the same country, just like people from Dublin and Cork. But these people are altogether different. Pashto people have a difficulty in the language Urdu, which the Punjabi people speak. A Pashto will speak Urdu, but he might use a masculine word instead of feminine, and the Urdu people will laugh at them. They are kind of cowardly and mean, not all, but you know, they won’t confront. But the Pashto people are hot headed. They will say, ‘Come!’ and it will be like that. So this is how it is. They react quickly, while the Punjabi tribe are a bit slowed down. Those people, like my husband, they are hot headed, but here, now, he has calmed down!
Has living in Ireland influenced the way your husband treats you?
Yes! We share decisions. We have a joint account. This is a big thing, a joint account. I ask him if I need to buy something. He says I don’t have to do this. I say, ‘but it’s your money.’ He says, ‘no, it’s our money.’ He says, ‘whatever you need, just do it. Don’t wait for me.’ That’s why he bought me a car. So I can be independent.
Here it’s good. You respect people. You say excuse me. There, they are lacking. When we go back, I think, ‘Oh my goodness, they are ignorant. They are harsh. They don’t have the idea that a woman can be hurt. They only listen to the priests in the mosque. Another very good thing is that in Cork we can go to the mosque. Men in one area, women in the other. It’s very nice that they allow us.
Women don’t go to the mosque in Pakistan?
No. They have no idea! They think it’s just for men. But here in Europe, it’s different. You can come together, to meet each other, learn who is who. Because no one has time to go to each other’s houses. So you can meet each other there. And it’s nice. We should do this too, in our country.
We do have many problems in our country. You know, in our society, you have heard of the honour killing of women. The men are so cruel. That is in our culture, in our society. And it happens in Punjab, in different areas. They just have to be a bit suspicious of their wives. They don’t need evidence or anything. And they can go and murder them. And the police can do nothing. The elders just say, ‘Don’t come and interfere in our system.’
Do women have extra marital affairs?
Generally no. But good and bad are there. My husband lived in Islamabad, and he said there were some men who had affairs with a married woman, and he was astonished. That happens in Islamabad. It’s less likely in Peshawar. But if the husbands know or suspect, the consequence is death. Even if the husband is doing the same thing, he will not be punished.
If the woman is not happy, you will see the behaviour. But you never see evidence of an affair like you do in movies, naked and in the bed. Never like that. You will see that she is sitting with someone, just talking to him. And people will talk about that. So that happens. It’s just in-laws saying, ‘What’s she doing with that guy?’ But she might just be asking him to do something for the home, anything. But there will be so many in-laws and so many people see you all the time. It’s crowded over there! You have to tell everyone you are going to the shop. It’s not like here.
What do you see as the negative factors about living in Ireland?
One thing is people don’t care about their neighbours as we do in Pakistan. They don’t know who lives next door, or how they are feeling. I went out and introduced myself to my new neighbours, when I came here. I said, ‘I am Tahira. My husband is working in the hospital. We have two children. We live here, next door to you.’ Then the people said, ‘OK.’ Otherwise they don’t feel the need to know who is who.
As a human, I think you should make contact. When we were moving from Cork, the next door neighbour saw us moving our stuff down the stairs, and he never said, ‘oh, are you leaving?’ Nothing. I thought, ‘Oh God. It’s like that.’ In Pakistan, if we have a new neighbour, we would send food to him. We would know that he is tired, so we would just leave the food. But he would know he is welcome. And we would help with unloading. No one just bothered, or said do you need help. This is one thing I felt very much, that it should be like that.
It is a drawback in Irish society, not looking out for your neighbour. Maybe they are alone. That’s why people become depressed, and commit suicide. I would say. Because they feel all alone. In Pakistan they will help you. They will give money to poorer relatives, you know. We don’t have a suicide problem in Pakistan.
How do you find the schooling?
School is very good. My five-year-old daughter is enjoying it. She would have so many books at this stage in Pakistan that she would be bent over with the books in her satchel. She would be reading and doing sums. And you get so stressed, and it’s no fun at all. Whereas here, in Junior Infants, it’s all play. I said to the teacher, ‘When are you going to give them one, two, three?’ and she said no, we’re just giving them drawings, and games and gradually we’ll start that.’
What is your dream?
To be a good mother, to have a happy family. To be a good woman. So on the Day of Judgment, when God asks us, ‘What did you do?’ I can say I have been trying to be kind to people, to help them, in whatever way I can. To reach them.
Are you happy you moved to Ireland?
Yes, we are. Ireland is a good place. Cork people especially are very welcoming. Nenagh is 50-50. But here, Cork people mix more quickly than others. I haven’t gone to Dublin that much so I don’t know how they are. But Cork people are nicer than any others I’ve met, and I’d like to stay here.
Pakistan, in south Asia, is the sixth most populated country in the world, and the second most populated country with a Muslim majority. Its territory was a part of the pre-partitioned British India, and has a long history of settlement and civilisation. Most of its current territory was conquered in the first millennium BCE by Persians and Greeks and ruled by them for a few centuries. The region was also part of various local dynasties. Later arrivals and conquests include those by the Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Baloch and Mongols. The territory was incorporated into British India in the nineteenth century.
Since its independence in August 1947, the country has experienced periods of considerable military and economic growth, as well as significant instability. The British partition of the Indian Empire along religious lines resulted in communal riots across India and Pakistan. Millions of Muslims moved to Pakistan and millions of Hindus and Sikhs moved to India. Disputes arose over princely states such as Jammu and Kashmir. The long running dispute with India over Kashmir resulted in full- fledged wars in 1947 and 1965. Civil war flared into the Bangladesh war of independence and the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971.
Pakistan conducted nuclear weapon tests in 1998 to counterbalance India’s nuclear explosions in1974 and 1998, becoming the only Muslim nuclear weapons state. The relations with India are steadily improving following peace initiatives in 2002. As well as political upheaval, the country has had to deal with natural disasters, such as the cyclone which caused 500 000 deaths in East Pakistan in 1970, and the earthquake in 2005, which cost the lives, homes and livelihoods of over a million.
Pakistan has accomplished many engineering feats such as construction of the world’s largest earth filled dam, Tarbela, the world’s twelfth largest dam, Mangla, as well as, in collaboration with its close ally China, the world’s highest international road: the Karakoram Highway.