HARIPUR: Getting the short end of the stick has never discouraged Shaheen Akhtar. On the contrary, it has inspired her to take her career to new heights and confront the pressures of an increasingly male-dominated society with rare courage and confidence.
She currently works as the assistant district coordinator for the National Programme on Primary Health Care in Haripur.
“I train lady health workers (LHW) and supervisors on community awareness, reproductive health, personal hygiene, sanitation and immunisation,” says Akhtar.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing on the way to her goals. Akhtar’s story mirrors the ordeal faced by women who sacrifice their dreams at the altar of cruel convention.
Akhtar’s story began with a dream which was shattered by a dramatic twist.
She was born on April 1, 1968 to a family in Haripur. Her father was an employee of Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and she was the second-youngest among four brothers and four sisters.
Ever since she was a child, Akhtar aspired to become a doctor. “I was inspired by Mother Teresa and wanted to help those who were in distress,” she says.
However, as fate would have it, Akhtar was forced to give up on her aspirations when she was plucked from one household only to be placed in another. In 1986, her father married her off to a services man who was 20 years older than her.
“At the time, I was only a student of first year at Government Girls College for Women in Haripur,” she says, recalling the initial days of her married life.
For Akhtar, misfortune had the inner courtyard as its epicentre. Her husband’s first wife had passed away and he had three children. To Akhtar was entrusted the responsibility of taking care of his children.
Stripped of any control over her own choices, Akhtar’s childhood ambition of studying medicine and becoming a doctor had become a lost dream. But it continued to influence her.
Out in the cold
For any woman in her position, support and encouragement from her loved ones would have helped in fostering her dreams. However, this appeared to be a long shot, especially when her marriage soon began to crumble.
“I was much younger than my husband and we were not on the same wavelength and were badly mismatched,” says Akhtar.
Her memories of the marriage are dominated by haunting tales of psychological abuse.
“I repeatedly complained to my parents about his behaviour,” she recalls. “But they did not want me to get divorced as it would bring a bad name to the family.”
Three years later, Akhtar found the silver lining to give her marriage another shot when she discovered that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, even the promise of motherhood could not solve her problem. Over time, it became unbearable for her to live with a man who had repeatedly stifled her with restrictions.
“I was seven months pregnant when I decided to leave my husband,” she says. “At the time, my unborn baby was my last hope.”
Shaheen Akhtar had a C-section but fate had something else in store for her. Eight days later, she lost her newborn to some medical complication. As expected, her husband blamed her for the loss of their child.
“I had no option left but to seek a divorce,” she recalls, trying hard to hold back her tears. “After a long and acrimonious court battle which lasted for an entire year, our marriage finally ended in 1989.”
With the unpleasant memories of her marriage behind her, 21-year-old Akhtar had all the liberty to wipe the slate clean and begin her life anew. She had survived, but the scars of her past remained etched to her soul.
“I was suffering from physiological complications after my pregnancy and was quite weak,” she says.
In the fractured spaces between all-consuming grief, Akhtar was forced to weigh her options. Over time, she had realised her loved ones did not understand her predicament. Moreover, living with her mother and her brother’s families was particularly difficult.
“They constantly taunted me and made my life miserable,” Akhtar says, “I had two choices: either I could have succumbed to their pressure once again or start my life again.”
Fortunately, she opted for the latter. With the support of her elder sister, who is a homeopathic doctor, she applied for a two-year medical technician course and got in.
Although her plans of becoming a doctor were ruined, Akhtar knew this was the only route to her independence. In 1991, she joined the health department and has never looked back since.
“I was passionate about my education and wanted to make up for the lost time,” she explains. Alongside her new career, Akhtar completed her intermediate education by taking exams as a private candidate.
Against all odds
“My marriage prevented me from pursing my goal for some time,” says Akhtar. Nevertheless, the desire to stand on her own feet urged her to not give up so easily. Although joining the health department provided her with the opportunity to help those in distress, she had only won half the battle.
“It was initially very difficult for people at work and at home to accept my choices,” she shares.
Akhtar’s family had a mixed response to her job at the health department. Some of her relatives and acquaintances discouraged her with snide remarks and criticism.
Moreover, there were very few women in the health department and her colleagues viewed her with a mixture of scepticism and awe.
“I had to face obnoxious remarks just like many other working women do,” says Akhtar. “Initially I was offended and thought to quit several times.” However, with time, she learnt to take their criticism in her stride.
“I analysed the situation carefully and decided not to succumb to pressures and fight back,” she explains.
A role model in her own right
Nearly two decades later, Akhtar has emerged as a symbol of courage.
She strongly advocates that women should not shy away from challenging situations where they are normally discouraged. On some level, she believes women are more resilient than men.
“My experiences have taught me if women rely on themselves rather than on men, they can achieve a great deal,” she says.
And with time, her family has grown to accept her choices.
“I have become a role model for the rest of my family,” she says. “Four of my nieces have joined the health department. They are not dependent on their spouses and help run the household.”
Akhtar believes working women have to work harder to prove themselves. “We have to do our job with honesty and work towards the social and economic uplift of our families and our country,” she explains. “Only then can we prove that women are equal to men.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2014. (Courtesy by Express Tribune)