'They Assumed I Ran A Brothel': How Women Wanting To Live Alone Are Treated In Pakistan

'They Assumed I Ran A Brothel': How Women Wanting To Live Alone Are Treated In Pakistan
When 28 year old Nida left her parents house in Rawalpindi to move to Islamabad with her friends, they didn't expect the process of finding an apartment to be as complicated as it ended up being. The women were moving to deal with the hassle of a daily commute to Islamabad, which can be brutal during rush hour. The first couple of houses they saw, the property dealers and landlords all turned them down. Renting to single, unmarried women in Pakistan is too risky, they claimed, saying they only rented to 'families'.

The concept of a family is a strange one, as far as rentals go in Pakistan. What they mean by family isn't the stereotypical four member nuclear family, nor the raucous and aggressively passionate joint family system. In the context of a rental, a family means at least one man, if you're a woman. It doesn't matter if they are your father, your husband, or even your 15-year-old brother. Family is family, and in Pakistan, family is men.

What male landlords think of when they think of female tenants: an illustration

The idea of a single woman renting a house is alarming to landlords for many reasons, all of them equally as sexist. They live in fear of the woman turning the place into a den of 'sin,' God only knows how many men she will bring back to her place. Perhaps she will throw loud and destructive parties, where alcohol flows freely and drugs are served as hors d'oeuvres. At any rate, a single woman is too big a liability and cannot be trusted to live alone under the roof of the landlord.

So then what are single women to do? 29-year-old Huda had to get creative. She moved to Peshawar at the start of the year, and planned on sharing an apartment with one other woman. Their landlord presented them with the usual objections about families, relenting only after the women managed to convince them that their family would be staying with them. Huda provided the details of her brother who she said would be staying with her, whereas her roommate brought in her mother from Peshawar and made it seem like she would be living with the two girls as well. And suddenly, there were no more objections...as long as Huda gave her landlord a list containing the names and CNIC numbers of anyone who would be visiting or staying with her.

The curious case of character assassinations that somehow vanish when you're no longer single

Both Huda and Nida say that the most vexing aspect of their interactions with landlords and property agents is the character judgement that follows. "The way they assumed that if I am single it means that I might run a brothel house, is what irritates me," said Huda, explaining that she knows she keeps the houses she rents in a far better condition than any of the male tenants the owners would get.

For her part, Nida says that when after she got married and her husband moved into the house she had previously been renting alone, she felt the attitudes of her neighbours shift immediately. Suddenly, people weren't as nosy, and didn't pry as much. "In the year that I lived alone [before the wedding], the neighbors definitely talked, and one even asked my fiancé why I would have males over at my place," she said, telling me how occasionally her brother or her friends would stay over, which was something that her parents had no issues with. Now she says the entire street is more accepting.

Incomplete contradictions, outliers and retired doctors

Friday Times called property dealers and real estate agents to find out if it was harder to find rentals for clients who were unmarried women. We were surprised to hear them tell me that it was harder still for men. Mikdad Haider of Leads Estate, a property agent from Lahore, who mostly deals with houses in DHA and Cantt, said that for the most, it's equally difficult for single men and women to find rental portions or apartments. "I would say that it can be even more difficult for single men to find an apartment, because women are considered more trustworthy, and if they are seeking a portion in a house, the family will be more likely to let a woman stay in their house than a man."

Intrigued, I decided to ask a friend of mine, Zeeshan, who I knew was living alone in a rented apartment with two other housemates in Lahore. He told me that when he initially started searching for apartments, every rental agent he called told him that no one would rent to a single man wanting to live alone. This proved to be true; even when he saw the houses, he never got approved because the owners were reluctant, and preferred a 'family'. Eventually, he found a portion through a friend, where he would have two other roommates, and the landlord seemed to be okay with letting three young single men live in their house. Zeeshan acknowledges that his landlord is an outlier; he suspects it's because the owner is a sixty-year-old retired doctor whose kids all live abroad and he just lives with his wife. So Zeeshan knows that he just got really lucky, and this isn't everyone's experience.

The invisible and disproportionate burden of 'izzat'

But even if the level of difficulty in acquiring a rental is more or less the same for both genders (which, it should be noted, is a fact that doesn't even take into consideration the hard task of dealing with social pressure and that invisible but ever present force of izzat, which is definitely not the same for men and women) the question of misogyny, harassment and invalidation still remains. Landlords and property agents are often very sexist towards female tenants, or have sexist expectations.

While I was researching this story, one woman told me that her landlords said even though they didn't charge their last tenants for gas consumption due to the fact that they were men, and men don't cook, they would be charging her and her roommates for one third of the gas bill, because 'obviously' women are going to be cooking more often and ordering in less. Yet another had to deal with curfews and restrictions on who could come over. One woman told me about her rental agent who made unwanted advances under the guise of helping out a woman who lives alone. These sort of instances disproportionately fall to women, and not men.

Gas leaks, invalidation and housing bubbles

Pernia Khan had moved to Islamabad to start a new job working with the BBC. Having lived alone in Pakistan once before, she knew that her odds of getting an apartment would be better if she took her father along to appeal for her. However, she very quickly found out that if she needed to get anything fixed by the landlord, or call his attention to anything wrong in the apartment, she would either have to rely on her father to intervene, or end up waiting weeks before anything happened. The worst and possibly most hazardous instance of this invalidation of anything women have to say, was when her rented portion had a gas leak.

She told TFT how she had tried to get the attention of her landlord multiple times, but it hadn't been till her father visited from Lahore a week later, and was appalled at the unmistakable odor of natural gas, that the landlord took action.

The housing market in Pakistan is an odd one. With more houses than families, and less apartments and studios, it's hard to find a place if you're young and unmarried.

As urbanization grows even more, and people continue to migrate from one big city to the other in search of better jobs, or for school, we're going to need to address the rental issue. Why is it so hard to find an apartment if you're young? The more difficult question to answer, however, is the one of gender. How do we change attitudes towards single women living alone? Until we challenge the core belief system and and restructure our ideas of society and culture, it will always just be a man's world.

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.