On the Wrong Side of the Fence

“Women are not a carton of milk with an expiry date!” says Humaira Saleem, an advertising executive in true advertising style. But open any Women’s Magazine and most of the copy accompanying the luscious and sultry women in the ads is on the lines of “The secret of eternal youth, Fight what ages you most, (anti-wrinkle advert), and one actually screams, “STOP! Take back control of the ageing process” Anti-ageing “revolutionary” products made of bizarre algae and mud concoctions and exotic extractions from the sea-bed adorn the Magazines promising eternal youth.

Are we an age-obsessed society – especially when it comes to women? We take a look at how the mature Pakistani woman is treated by different strata of society.

Recruitment

Is age a factor in hiring people (especially women)? And do we differ from the West in being obsessed about age? “We are as good or bad as anyone else” says Leon Menezes, General Manager at a multinational Company. “The only difference is that there are laws in the West to protect the working rights of women and none in the East. A simple (and highly visible example) are the flight attendants you see in the East – hardly any elderly ones on any of the Mid East or Far East carriers. Pakistan, in that case, is much better. More than from a “legal” perspective, we should look at the behavioral aspect of how we treat people; our attitude to older segments of society is telling and comes from our families. However, when it comes to the work place, I do not think people prefer a younger or older person for most jobs. It has more to do with experience and suitability. Having said that, most people like to see gray hair on their senior executives!”

“In many Western countries and Australia, there is a trend to rehire women who have taken a career break to raise a family. Companies are finding this to be a rich source of mature workers who are at peace with themselves – meaning they have done what they feel is the right thing and now have time to do what they find to be challenging and rewarding”

A Female Senior Executive in the Development Sector says very frankly, “I am guilty of discriminating. I have been looking for men or women depending on the job responsibility. A single girl or the newly wed will always make me uncomfortable as I know she will leave to marry or have her babies. Very few women have been able to sustain their careers the same way. I have also actually suffered when women who I have invested time and energy to groom have just left – not for a better job but to have a family. So yeah, I guess there is discrimination”

A male, Senior Official from the Banking Sector talks the same talk,  “I think, Corporates (rightly or wrongly) are somewhat age conscious, especially when it comes to front line/sales/service positions, where it is assumed that the younger lot would be more energetic and eager to put in long hours. This is true for either males or females but probably more so for females.

A change that has transpired over last few years is that for senior level specialized jobs – the employees are generally indifferent and in many cases (such as service/ hospitality/ medical / education professions) prefer females over males.

Samia Zuberi, a Senior Executive in a Consultant Firm talks about the respect women get and how she hopes it is skill and competency-based recruitment that becomes the norm rather than age or gender based, “I feel that we are thankfully ahead of the West when it comes to older women in the corporate sector due to our traditional values of respecting elders. Older women in senior positions receive a lot of respect, perhaps even more than younger women who are just starting out a career.  In jobs that have a great deal of face to face client interaction, like sales, media, air stewards etc. companies all over the world prefer to hire younger and more energetic women as this is perceived as being pleasing to customers and boosting sales. This trend was not as common in Pakistan due to traditional family values, but is now slowly creeping in as we are becoming more westernized. In my opinion, it would be very desirable to discourage this trend before it spreads as the focus should be on whether the person has the right skills and competence for the job, not what their looks or age is”

Tanzeela Hussain, a Senior HR Professional feels “I think that our reaction as a society to the concept of “age” is not unusual to others – it is an outcome/response to our current population profile and economic conditions. Pakistan has a rapidly increasing population with life expectancy remaining at somewhere in the mid-fifties. Literacy rates are going up but the working opportunities not at the same rate as the population!  We have a young society and are obsessed with recruiting young people! In the West – the population growth is not so high, people are living longer lives, and hence they have older people in their society and are therefore not as obsessed with hiring younger people.

I think our obsession with age when it comes to women is just something which is a part of the natural evolution of a woman’s role in today’s society.  Ours (I am in my mid 30’s) is probably the first generation in Pakistan where the number of women going for higher education and then pursuing a career has become significant.  In our society, women are still the supplementary income earner as compared to the primary one, and have the responsibility for raising families.

In Pakistan in the past, there were few working women and because of the inherent support system in our society, organisations did not really feel the need to alter their systems and policies in order to retain and attract women.  It is just easier to hire a man – because he can work till all odd hours.  With a woman – particularly an older one who may have family responsibilities, that’s not possible!  With a younger woman it’s workable.  So that’s why employers prefer to hire younger women! It’s not just about breaking mental stereotypes – its that organisations have to change a lot more in order to attract, retain and motivate women employees!”

Cosmetics and Fashion

Does the cosmetic and fashion industry cater to the mature woman? A refreshing site greets my eyes, one International Cosmetic Company is finally ‘getting it’. A graceful 50 year old features on their advertisement and the eye-catching slogan asks ‘Our age is not an imperfection that needs to be corrected. We’re proud of who we are today. We’re Pro-age – are you?” Their Marketing Campaign features women over 50, saying that ‘age is irrelevant when it comes to beauty – rather than erase the signs of ageing, we should celebrate who we are’

Is some of this positive attitude reflected in Pakistani fashion/cosmetic industry?, Zarqa Qureshi who runs the Zaq Saloon thinks otherwise, “The fashion awareness for mature women is just beginning to emerge in Pakistan as compared to the Western world where distinct style, jewelry and cosmetic procedures are commonplace for mature women. However, age defying lines of makeup and cosmetics procedures such as botox, fillers and face lift are catching on locally now”

 Shaista Tariq who also runs a beauty saloon feels a lot of older women are stopped by society and the people around them in taking pains to look good. Its like saying you are above 50 and your life is over (and if its not is SHOULD be) – “Bhoori ghori, laal lagam” That’s what they are afraid of. “Of course you have to age gracefully, if you are above fifty and want to look like an 18 year old, you have got it all wrong – this is about realising that beauty is not just about the outer appearance and your face and your clothes, it’s about caring for yourself  – a woman’s true beauty is reflected in her soul and it grows with passing years. I have a 72 year old client who is so particular about her treatments and comes regularly. She says, it makes her ‘feel young’ to take care of herself”

TH, does not think there is anything wrong with trying to stay young and feels that the concept of maturity for women is also changing and marketing companies are seeing them as a large section of the community and society that have “needs”  including those related to looking and feeling better, “The emphasis is still on trying to look younger! But then that is not women specific.  Youth is associated with fun, beauty and a good life!

Designers

Do designer clothes cater only to gym bodies of twenty somethings?  ZQ thinks, “ Designers definitely do not focus on catering to the requirements of the older segment but rather stick with the young and petite market segment; perhaps they are less of a challenge for the designers. At times one cannot even find medium sized outfits at popular design houses.

Yosuf Bashir Qureshi, designer and owner of Commune Artists Colony, however is of the view, “Over the centuries, the idea of beauty and personality has been subject to the fluctuation of both fashion and individual perception. There was a time when beauty was thought to be found in perfectly proportioned faces and bodies that were voluptuous rather than angular.  Periods when faces were ornately made up or left ethereally pale, when freckles were scorned or hair adorned, when women painted, powdered and patched – ducklings striving to be swans.

Today beauty is more than a byproduct of cosmetics.  As the human species has evolved, distances lessened, cultures blended, awareness increased, the psyche of the consumer has changed.

The designers in Pakistan have been concentrating on bridals primarily.  Prêt had been neglected for the longest time, basically due to tailors and availability of fabrics.  The trend has now changed and designers will be addressing the needs of the consumers, either rich or poor, old or young.  The media has created awareness everywhere and everyone wants to be fashionable and knows what’s happening around the globe.  Every field has become more and more competitive, in order to stay in business one needs to fulfill the demands.

Media:

In the Media, many think she is portrayed as a  “sexual object – to be had and consumed. To be ogled at”. “Yes, we sometimes show women as objects, but the purpose is to rile the viewer, to get a reaction, to create awareness that this is not how it should be,” says Ayub Khawar, a Poet, playwright, and Director of TV plays. He feels Pakistani dramas are hand in hand with NGO’s championing women’s liberation – ‘Media highlights women issues. The fifty plus woman is mostly shown in respectful characters like a mother, aligning her with values like sacrifice, sharafat etc. I have written two plays about older women marrying men younger than themselves. Characters showing the older woman as gold-digger hussies are not really tolerated by the Pakistani Media”   What about the endless saas, bahu chronicles showing the saas as a plotting, scheming older woman creating havoc for the daughter-in-law (or vice versa) I ask “That, when we see it in Pakistani media is a concept smuggled from Star Plus , and its not reflective of the Indian woman either, and yes some of it is based on reality as this mother-in-law, daughter-in-law phenomena is a worldwide one and more so in the Subcontinent. AB agrees with the Indian and Western influence part, “I think our social behavior has been influenced by the cable culture and Western cultural influences that come with it, not to mention the Indian influences. As a nation, I feel we are in somewhat of an identity crisis not knowing what we stand for”.

H is of the view that media portrayal of the older woman depends on the genre – Mainstream US media portrays barbies with brains. The UK media more open to ‘real’ looking women, while “Paki media is obsessed with the gorgeous loving sacrificing mother who gets the fat balding prince in the end”

 Marriage

Of course, younger the better is the norm for women when it comes to marriage for reasons ranging from valid (child-bearing) to the totally ridiculous (it’s easier to ‘mold’ a young girl). And the issue of women married to younger men stirs up a hornet’s nest. Quite a few people think such are marriages of convenience for financial security (for the man).

One friend talks about a couple with the woman being 12 years older, “When they got married, there was not much opposition from families but everyone else called the man a “gold digger who married a frumpy old woman for wealth and connections”. She also talks about another couple where the mother of the guy created a lot of problems. So, in all fairness, is it mostly women themselves responsible for the propagation of such ideas? This topic has been discussed to death, – what’s heartening is that there are strong women married to men younger than themselves and enjoying happy, healthy and successful marriages.

I turn to one such strong woman. Even before she speaks to me on this topic, I am aware of her inner confidence and her body language that speaks volumes about how she should be treated. Observing her, it’s very clear that age is just not an issue with her, and so it doesn’t become one for her.

In her own words, “ Over thirteen hundred years ago,  Prophet Muhammad (25),  married Khadija (40) in a monogamous marriage that ended when she died 20 years later.  Khadija was his true companion, his support as he entered Prophethood in a way no other wife was to him.  If our Prophet embraced this tradition of marrying an older woman, why can’t we?  We can’t even think of it in our society.  We raise our daughters to believe that they will marry an older man, that men only want to marry younger women. And as long as we continue to believe and practice and live it, we will remain limited by our narrow thoughts.

My husband is eight years younger than I am.  We have been happily married for nearly seven years and have a three year old daughter.  My husband’s mother was at first concerned that he would quickly lose interest in an older woman , but that dissipated after meeting me. My parents liked my husband and felt that if he was ok with marrying an older woman, they were fine.  I also thought a lot about my relationship and future before committing to my husband.  Some thoughts that came across my mind were: “What if he starts to lose interest and finds another woman?”  But let’s be honest.  That happens with young women also; it has little to do with age and more to do with men being men.  I thought that during our marriage- issues related to age would come up- but this has not happened.

I feel it is important to have similar values and discuss when they want to start a family, because  let’s  face it: women are constrained by their biological clock.  However, we can be creative.  My husband and I even talked about adoption and are still interested in adopting a little girl.

After marriage we only told close friends about our age difference.   We neither hid nor flaunted anything. People were actually impressed that we were so bold and confident to marry each other.  I think much of the “opposition” that we think we will face is in our mind.  We have not embraced this idea and practice as ours even though the Prophet himself practiced it.

The Imam, who performed my wedding ceremony, said it was our Prophet’s custom that the woman propose, since Khadijah proposed to the Prophet, and accordingly, I proposed to my husband in front of 150 people.  He had also told me that usually age is not a reason why people don’t marry; it is a cover up for something else, and that as the marriage progressed and we both got older, the age difference would not seem as much. I think he is right.

That men are never too old to marry and women are “shelved” after they hit their mid 20s is a myth that society continues to perpetuate.  While it is true that women lose their child bearing potential much earlier than men, they are still fertile in their thirties and sometimes in their 40s.  Physical beauty, health and fertility, all important elements that a man seeks in a woman, are more likely to be found in a younger woman, or so people think.  Yet are these the only reasons people marry?  How about good companionship, friendship, and love?  Moreover, I know many women in their thirties who are healthy, beautiful and can bear a child.  Why do women give up so easily?  If your attitude is “Nobody will marry me now that I am in my thirties,” this is what you are likely to attract.  Yet this is what our parents, our society teaches us. Unless we truly shift our thoughts and attitudes and be open to different possibilities, we will continue to block ourselves, resent and blame others as well as ourselves”

Asma who married in her thirties, now the mother of two who still pursues a successful career in the Development Sector says. “re the issue of marriage, we do seem to be obsessed with this as if this is a cure all and a ticket to eternal bliss…. I know of women who married in their late 40’s, men who were the same age as them or a year younger. Both are very happy … but the important thing I would like to point out is that both these women were lively, energetic, highly driven professionals pursuing interests such as flying, painting, traveling etc. and had decided that being single was ok if they didn’t come across the right person. I think a lot depends on your immediate family network and your personal strength. One needs to have a positive outlook and be engaged in a meaningful pursuit instead of focusing 24/7 on the miseries of being a single woman. Easier said than done if you are surrounded by people who are constantly trying to demoralize you by either suggesting beauty tips to improve your marketability or match you up with the most inappropriate candidates..

I think we need to improve our individual spirituality and have a more balanced view of our life, its meaning, and what we want out of it. Marriage is indeed an important part of it but there are other avenues for fulfilling one’s needs of belonging, nurturing, loving, sharing etc…. I am not by any means suggesting non marital western style alliances…I am referring to community work, orphan sponsorship, taking up healthy hobbies, volunteering, personal development etc”

Hence, the topic of age is really ageless seen from which ever angle we choose to see. The issues related to aging gets people excited and passionate and opinions start flowing – Real chronological aging catches up with all of us. Whether it is the Pakistani Society or Western, biases and prejudices in one form or the other exist and the question doesn’t end with determining whether we are an ageist society or not. The real story unfolds after we realize that yes, we most probably are ageist and sexist, so where do we go on from here?

BA, in her 60’s and still working successfully answers this question in her razor-sharp style, “ What does an aging woman think about aging? I think it’s a state of mind, even if my mirror and my knees tell me otherwise! After all there are people who are born aged–the proverbial buddhi roohs–and then those who grow old but do not grow up–the Peter Pans. So instead of accepting the reality of their mortality and their age gracefully, they resort to skin-deep solutions like botox to keep away the wrinkles and liposuction to trim and firm sagging bellies and thighs.

What of the mind? An intelligent, well-informed woman who can converse with ease on topics that matter (not the latest gossip or fads or diets, but intellectual meat) is far more attractive than an empty-headed, skinny, silly person who won’t accept her age. That is not to say that one should be old and fat and funny, but as a wise man said, a woman who ages well is like fine wine who improves with her years”

Humaira seconds this,“I think it’s women who ‘shelve’ themselves. Women need to get a better self image and change the rules that are obsolete and start living by their own. Women are not a carton of milk with an expiry date!”

Hence, as a final analysis, even if the injustices meted to a woman outweigh whatever benefits her growing years may grant her, even if she gets discriminated at work or other woman gang up on her, or the fashion and cosmetic industry keeps catering to sultry twenty-something’s, it is really a woman’s inner beauty and strength that will grant her the confidence to age gracefully and carve justice in a perhaps unjust gender-based, gender-biased, sexist world.

In the end, Mark Twain says it all in his racy little quote ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

 

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