Pakistanis Increasingly Seek Marriage as a Ticket Out

Growing numbers look for suitors living abroad as one way of escaping grim conditions at home

Courtesy Ayesha Akram, The Star

LAHORE, PAKISTAN–When their daughter turned 23, Qaisra and Ibrahim Sheikh became jittery.

Qaisra was eager to find a good proposal for Saira (the eldest of her three children), who completed her bachelor’s degree from the Lahore School of Economics in June. Qaisra’s criteria for her prospective son-in-law were simple: a well-settled, highly educated man who rivalled her daughter’s 5-foot-10-inch height. Ibrahim wanted a liberal Muslim. But both parents, who manufacture packaging machines, were absolutely adamant about one attribute – they wanted a suitor who was living outside Pakistan.

“Considering the political and economic conditions in this country, both my husband and I were interested in finding a husband for our daughter who was settled abroad,” Qaisra said. “We realized that given how the political situation was spiralling downward, keeping our daughter here would be unfair to her.”

Saira Sheikh got married in July to Naghman Azmat, who works for Macro Technologies in Boston. According to her mother, Saira was even more eager than her parents to move abroad after marriage.

“She would constantly tell me it’s not worth it to live in this country,” said her mother. “She believed salaries were not increasing while inflation was peaking, leading to a horrible quality of life.”

The Sheikhs aren’t alone. Anxiety over Pakistan’s future, its shaky political and economic conditions, the recent change in leadership and the growing influence of Islamist groups are making many parents of prospective brides feel uneasy.

Shahrukh Jehangir, who runs a marriage bureau in Lahore, says the trend has completely changed in the last five years.

“Earlier, parents wanted to see their daughters settle down close to home,” she said. “Now, they just want to send their daughters as far away as possible.”

Jehangir says every third family who comes to her looking for a groom is eager to push their daughters to greener pastures. In some cases – like Kaukab Perveen, a housewife in Karachi – the search was for a bride abroad who could help her son settle down in a country other than Pakistan. Her 22-year-old son got engaged last year to a 19-year-old in Saudi Arabia whose father makes elevators.

“The numbers in which Pakistanis are flocking abroad are unprecedented,” said Lahore-based lawyer Hina Jillani. “Previously, we would only see economic migration amongst low socio-economic classes, but nowadays even well-off sectors of society seem to be rushing toward greener pastures.”

Pakistani brides are heading to Canada, the United States, Europe, Singapore and more recently Australia. There are 124,730 Pakistanis living in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

While mothers are scuttling to find foreign-settled grooms for their daughters, would-be mothers like Mariyam Ali Ahsan, are rushing abroad in their seventh month of pregnancy to ensure their child is born with the “dearest of all gifts – a U.S. passport.”

“The future seems so awful in Pakistan that after I got pregnant everyone began pushing me to head to the United States,” she said, cuddling her 3-month-old son. “Frankly I wouldn’t want my child to grow up here.”

Ahsan says the $10,000 she and her husband spent on the airfare and hospital bills in New Jersey were worth it.

“It’s the best investment we could have made in our child’s future,” she said.

For Fiza Mustanzil, whose husband owns his own electronics business in Lahore, the decision to have her first baby in the U.S. was a difficult one.

“I wanted to be with my mother and my family for the baby’s birth but my husband was adamant the birth should take place in America so the baby would receive U.S. citizenship,” said Mustanzil, who has just returned from Houston with her 2-month-old daughter Anaya. In retrospect, she believes they made the right choice. “At least our daughter now has the option of fleeing the country if the situation worsens,” she said.

Gynecologists in Pakistan have also begun witnessing this trend.

Those who can afford it and those who have privileges tend to make the choice to travel abroad for the delivery in order to obtain nationalities for their children, said Dr. Ghazal Mehmood, head of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad.

Though it’s hard to put numbers on the trend, anecdotal evidence suggests it is definitely on the rise.

“The brain drain the country is currently facing is unlike anything we have encountered in the past,” said Muhammed Hafeez, chair of the sociology department of the University of Punjab.

“The push factors are evident: political instability and the plummeting security situation are scaring many away.”

The climate of fear is harming everyone, especially investors. Given that under United Arab Emirates laws, the purchase of property leads to a permanent residency status, many investors are turning their eyes to the Persian Gulf.

“Out of every 10 investors who I’m in touch with, at least four have either moved to Dubai or started purchasing property there,” said Sheikh Al-Abid, who advises investors on real estate in Dubai. “This has all happened in the last two to 2 1/2 years.”

Almost every businessman who can afford to invest $1 million or more has turned his sights to the U.A.E., according to Al-Abid.

Those who can’t afford to buy a condo in the Persian Gulf look toward countries favouring highly skilled immigration. Immigration consultant Suhail Amir says the number of people searching for a way out of Pakistan has definitely doubled in the last few years.

“Simply looking at my clientele and the clientele of a few colleagues, at least 2,000 people emigrated last year from Lahore only,” said Amir.

Saira Sheikh, who has changed her name to Saira Naghman, is now settling in to her new life in the United States. Her mother regularly browses her daughter’s Facebook to view photographs she has uploaded.

“See how happy she looks,” said her mother, pointing at a picture of her daughter and son-in-law. “I think we definitely made the right choice in sending her away.”


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