Karachi: Changes in Values and Lifestyles

Changes in the social values and lifestyles of the elite and middle classes in Karachi are all too visible; new cars, designer boutiques, fast food outlets, malls, expensive cafes, posh schools and universities in the private sector and advertisements promoting consumerism. However, the changes in the social values and lifestyles of the lower and lower middle classes are hidden from view. The most visible expression of the change that has taken place in these classes is the emergence of young couples sitting with their arms around each other on the benches of parks in the city – sometimes even lying in each other’s laps. This behaviour is surprisingly tolerated by the other visitors (even breaded ones) to the parks and has led in some cases to the segregation of spaces between families, male visitors and couples. As one waiter at Hill Park put it, “there is nothing you can do about this. You cannot quarrel with the zamana.”

In an attempt to understand this phenomenon, I have over the last five years interviewed or had a questionnaire filled by 100 young couples in parks and at Sea View. They all belong to the lower and lower middle classes. Of these 28 couples were married. Of the 100 women 32 wore the hijab and 68 wore a black or grey aba. Only 18 couples were interested in politics and/or read political news in the newspapers. Eighty three were interested in migrating to another country of and for which seven married couples and 16 unmarried men have taken some steps. The reasons for wanting to migrate were in order of importance; one, there was no justice in Pakistan; two, they would never be able to own a place to live or to rent a proper home; three, married couples were afraid that they would not be able to educate their children properly; four, there was no affordable entertainment and recreation; five, there were too many family disputes often related to behaviour patterns of the young which they considered hypocritical; and six, they lived, worked and travelled in terrible environmental conditions. The parents of five unmarried couples knew of their relationship but due to social considerations they could not meet each other in the mohallas or the building complexes in which they lived. In 14 couples the male and female were of different ethnic backgrounds. These couples certainly do not constitute the majority of young people in lower and lower middle income settlements in Karachi but they are definitely trend setters as their numbers are rapidly increasing.

What has brought about this very visible change apart from TV and the “trickle down” of the lifestyles of the more affluent sections of society? I feel that the most important reason is that for the first time in our history we have a very large number of unmarried female adolescents. In the 1981 Census 37.54 per cent women and 13.14 per cent men in the age group of 15 to 24 were married. If we project the 1998 Census figures to 2007 then less than 20 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men in this age group are married today. Also, the low income settlements that I knew in the 70’s and 80’s have changed. Then they were purely working class settlements and women did not work. Today, there are doctors, engineers, formal sector entrepreneurs, persons employed in the corporate and IT sectors, bank managers, college and school teachers (majority of them women), living in these settlements. This is a sea-change.

In order to know more I discussed the changes that I have noticed with older residents and the more upwardly mobile community members of low income settlements and with the staff of the Urban Resource Centre. There was general agreement that the major change that has taken place is the breakup of the extended or joint family and this has played a major role in a change of values and behaviour patterns. Among the reasons given for the breakup of the joint family is that previously there was one earning member and others were dependents. Today there are many earning members and hence the patriarchal structure can not survive. Money from abroad was also sighted as a reason for the break-up of the family since it created jealousy in the extended family and the nuclear family of the person sending it broke away from the rest. In addition, working women have also adversely affected the joint family system for it has led to quarrels and disputes around family honour and traditional values. My friend Mansoor Raza’s survey of peoples sleeping in the streets revealed that the majority of them consisted of young men who had run away from home and old men who had been abandoned by their families.

During one of the discussions it was also mentioned that people were not conscious of the changes that have taken place and as a result are a bit confused. For instance, one person reported how after much heart burning and violence, he agreed to let his daughter marry out of his caste and how he was terrified of what the reaction of his clan would be. However, there was no reaction except for a few elders being sarcastic – his pears did not particularly care. “The traditions are gone but we do not know it for out of fear we do not discuss these things” was his conclusion.

Older residents agreed that an increasing number of youth are “undisciplined” and violent gangs are emerging in their localities. One of the reasons given for this is that parents have become more liberal because of a “change in the times”. Other reasons given are unemployment and the terrible state of public education and its uselessness. An increasing number of young people are doing their matric and intermediate and after that they are not willing to do manual labour. Meanwhile, jobs that are available in the market require technical skills and more and more of them require formal “sanads” and not just experience with an ustad. These jobs are mostly in the textile, medical and construction industry. However, there are no educational centres where one can be trained for these jobs and those that are are too few and far too expensive. For example, there is a great demand for male nurses but there are only five institutions that one can apply to. Admission fee to these institutions is between Rs 30 to 40,000 and a monthly fee is between Rs 2 to 3,000.

In all the discussions there was general agreement that the rising gap between poverty and wealth is a major factor in the social and political alienation of the young in the lower and lower middle income groups as aspirations increase but resources and opportunities do not. There is also an agreement that the solution lies in the development of good public sector educational institutions equal to those of the elite and in the teaching of English. For example, it was mentioned in one of the discussions that at a private school a normal women teacher gets about Rs 1,500 to 3,000 a month whereas someone who is good in English can get upto Rs 8 to 10,000 a month.

There was general consensus that private schools are expensive and often a family has to choose which of its children it will send to them. In the absence of an affordable and useful public school education system more and more students are being sent to a madrassa. “At least they learn how to read and write there and without reading and writing there is no future today”. “In a government school they learn nothing but corruption from their teachers”. “These are not schools, they resemble aasar-e-qadeema. No water, no toilets, no furniture, broken floors and collapsing roofs”. These were some of the comments that were made during the discussions.

The above discussion points to the fact that we will have a very different society in Karachi in the next decade. It also points to the need for a major reform in the education and social sectors and in state culture along with corresponding changes in city planning priorities. If that does not happen, political and social alienation will increase and so will the chances of conflict and further fragmentation.

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