KARACHI, Pakistan — By Pakistani standards, I'm fast approaching old maid status — my 25th birthday is less than a month away. As news of my age and single status has spread around our family circles, I've had the pleasure of suffering through a host of well-intentioned conversations surrounding my lifestyle.
Over the Eid holidays, I saw a friend of my grandmother's for the first time in months. As I greeted her, she peered at me from behind her thick glasses.
"Isn't it about time you let a man find you?" she asked me. I nodded, while looking for an escape route, but she'd already grasped my hands. "That's all I prayed for all Ramadan," the woman continued. "For women like you to get married and have happy, healthy children."
I bit my tongue, only thanking her. Her words were some of the least offensive in a slew of similar comments I've heard since moving back to Karachi.
My relationship status, or lack thereof, comes up almost every time I speak to the older women in my family. Just this week, my grandmother showed me a second-cousin's wedding invitation. "Do you know how old she is?" my grandmother asked. "Younger than even your brother."
My younger brother is 22. I had to work hard not to mention that I was far too busy studying to be thinking of marriage when I was his age; for my grandmother, a master's degree pales in comparison to the achievement of a good engagement.
Once, at a get-together, a family friend asked me what I was going to do about my height. I'm 5'5" — perfectly average by American standards, but edging toward the taller end of the spectrum in Pakistan. What she was getting at was this: the average Pakistani man hovers around 5'7".
"I don't think they can shrink bones," I told her, but she missed the sarcasm in my tone. She urged me to hurry up and find someone. "The tall ones who don't mind will get taken first!" she said.
In another instance, I was standing with my mother in the grocery store line, waiting for the cashier to finish ringing us up. We were approached by a friend of my mother's who wanted to know what my mother was going to do about her daughter losing so many childbearing years. The woman ignored me, discussing my marital status as though I wasn't standing right there. "No one will marry her," the woman lamented. "She should get married soon."
The most frustrating experience of all was when a friend of my mother's explained that my education was going to prohibit me from ever finding happily-ever-after.
"No one wants to marry a woman smarter than them," she told me, angrily, when she heard that I'd earned a master's degree.
Then she turned to my mother and said, "You should never have allowed her to study this much, now she'll never get married."
Neither of us said anything, nodding quietly.
I have fumed silently about all of these interactions. I have also burst into rants, usually around my mother, about how all these women need to mind their own business.
Until recently, I had never asked my mother how she feels about the unsolicited blessings and advice. Her marriage to my father was arranged, and I'd always worried that she'd advise me to give the old-fashioned way a try. But it turns out she's not entirely traditional about the institution. While she's encouraged me to meet the available, appropriate men, she says she'll be happy with whomever I choose.
As for the pressure from the rest of society, at least I'm not alone.
At a recent art gallery event, a single friend of mine was approached by an older woman she barely knew.
"I have the name of a great gynecologist," said the woman. The statement was confusing; there was no prelude, but the woman went on: "I heard your 28th birthday is coming up," she said, her voice a stage whisper. "This woman can really help you figure out if your ovaries are okay."
Stifling a laugh, my friend thanked the woman. "I'll call you for the contact," she said, a response more genial than the one I would have given.
After the woman walked away, I asked my friend if she knew what the comment was all about. "I guess she assumed that because I haven't gotten married yet, there must be something wrong with the baby maker," she said.
We burst into laughter.