From Grade 1 to O’Levels and then intermediate, I studied in all girls institutions. I remember that we had a rather liberating atmosphere even in school, we were all quite at peace with each other, with seniors and juniors all girls and with the exception of few male teachers in senior school and even fewer in administration, the staff was all female.

Of course, members of the other sex were looked upon with much interest, once we reached our teenage. For few weeks, some boys would use neighbouring grounds for their compulsory NCC practice in college and could be looked upon when passing by our huge open windows in the classroom. They remained a source of excitement for quite a while.

And yet there was a cheeky and mischievous young peon, who didn’t mind some extra queries by the girls. With beaming smiles he would spend a few additional minutes in our company, for him conversing with bubbly teenage girls was an opportunity he would never find in his home back in the conservative frontier. For us, he was a specimen of the opposite gender, readily available for examination, no matter how limited it was!

There were no hushed corners in the corridors or in the classrooms, for the entire space was ours, free from intrusion by alien species. And talking of aliens, much of our senior classes were spent in reviewing the weekly episodes of ‘War of the Worlds’, a tv serial aired on the lone Pakistan Television. The aliens were not at all appealing, but the humans, especially two males in the lead, tore the class in two opposing camps, with members of each campaigning, cheering and defending their hearts out. We had heated arguments, we had tears, we had laughs and hugs, all in our very classroom, for there were no boys peering at us in awe and we had nobody to keep secrets from.

I read Manto for the first time in our school library. Hardly getting the hang of his literary genius, his bold topics were much of an eye opener for me. With the help of our biology course books, we had very enlightening sessions amongst ourselves about our maturing physique – all within our classrooms. Back in those days of innocence, we giggled away our inhibitions and prepared to enter adulthood.

So when I look back at those days, I smile at joyous memories and everlasting bonds we girls created for ourselves. If given a chance, I would want to go back at the same place, with the same people. Practically, however, the story emerged a little different.

It was quite natural that the only exposure and understanding I had of boys and men at that age was within the family. Cousins and their friends were a source of learning. Spending most of my childhood in the company of girls, I became more of an introvert and shy person, especially when with males. There would be occasions where I would find myself at a loss for words in male company and started doubting at my capacity to start a conversation. At that age, both girls and boys eye each other with curiosity and I was lucky enough to get favourable glances from most of the lads. But the trouble would be that I would remain tongue tied if any one would even greet me.

Haunted by my miserable acts in social gatherings, I lifted myself and somehow, managed to take off the cloak of shyness I had worn through out my teenage. College years, although also all girls and then co-ed university days were an improvement. I made friends, with both boys and girls, although mostly confined to groups. I started hanging out in their company. I got engaged in my university years. But the ghost of shyness would spook my life a little more.

My first job was as a trainee reporter and producer in a production house. I thanked my stars when my interviewer was a female, in fact a family friend. Luckily, our editorial room was all girls. So we discussed fashion, ate spicy or tangy snacks and sang Indian songs quite openly. There were, however, a few exceptions.

The graphics and animations room downstairs was a boys domain. Occasionally I would have to step in. For a while, I would pass by colleagues without even greeting them, afraid that it may lead to a conversation! After two or three months, our editorial was headed by a senior journalist – a male. Then, as a reporter, I had to attend press conferences and conduct interviews, commuting with male camera crew members. These were much dreaded, nightmarish experiences. Luckily, my dream of achievement pulled me out.

I took off yet another, inner cloak which I had been wearing all along, which restricted my mingling with the other sex. I started to enjoy their jokes. I responded to their appraisals or approvals politely. I would inwardly beam at appreciating looks. And then, I never looked back, only to lament some times at another opportunity I had been given in my professional life.

In the the university days I had worked as an intern at a brokerage house. Although a diligent and rather efficient worker, in moments of no work, I had nothing to do. I would sit back and observe the brokers at work, but would have definitely learnt more had I engaged in some conversation. On the contrary, it was more of a passive three week internship, with work done only when given. In the end, I got a certificate with favourable remarks, but also an emptiness that I could have done better, maybe bagged a job.

This experience, in particular, forced me to change. When I was struggling to overcome my shyness in the first job, I plunged myself in the sea of society and after few frantic laps for survival, emerged a smooth swimmer. By the time I had joined Geo News, I was a different person. By then, I had managed to travel abroad for event coverages and trainings. I answered questions during the interview confidently. I asked questions during our training sessions intelligently. I was quickly promoted as a Shift Incharge, responsible for hourly bulletin production, working with a team of senior copy editors, other producers and technical staff. I handled all responsibilities with flying colours, which would naturally have not been possible had I not engaged in frequent discussions with my male staff.

So what would be my recommendation for young girls: go for co-ed schools? It’s a tricky question. What my all girls experience instilled in me, undoubtedly due to teachers and mentors of excellent background, was a fine personal grooming. We were not so much conscious of our appearance at school, we concentrated more at our interests, our

aspirations and of course our studies. We were very much ourselves. We managed to pass that time without much heartbreaks, since there was hardly any one around to break our hearts!

But the lack of exposure to the male crowd did, at least in me, create a confusing persona of them. Years later I realised that it’s not a difference in topics which we should keep in mind when conversing with men. Of course, there are certain ones which we would naturally not want to discuss with them, like female fashion trends or female health issues, but other wise, men are quite keen about gossip as women! Just like there can be a feminine insight to sports – discriminatingly considered a boys only topic, one would be surprised to find out a male point of view on topics like those of even saas bahu – a favourite amongst women!

Professionally, women can actually learn a lot from men. It is a pity that in Pakistan, there are still many women who are unable to pursue career after studies or after marriage. It is considered fortunate for them if, from an early age, they are encouraged to remain ambitious and choose a line of career or work for themselves. Men, on the other hand, are since from the very beginning, familiar with technical innovations, for example. In such fields, their expertise and command is no doubt worth learning from.

Women or rather young girls, suddenly entering professional domains after a secluded study background, mostly remain dreamy eyed. They are either inhibited by men or are attracted to them, unnecessarily. Their daily job life is a tussle between good performance and attention from male colleagues. In contrast, the girls who come from co-ed background are more aware of men’s psyche, their mannerism and their thought process. They are relatively more comfortable in their company.

In my opinion, girls, if studying in seclusion during school, should be exposed to mixed events in their later years. An opportunity to do projects or compete with male counterparts would help bring a safe interaction. This would demand inter school communication. Once their schooling is complete, they should be encouraged to enter co-ed institutions, when they are a little mature to handle a wider exposure.

As I was able to move across my shyness, I could expect other girls in a similar situation to do the same. But then every girl may not have that strength of will or fortune to be able to get chances. In today’s world, which is becoming highly competitive and when more women are expected to join mainstream professions in the future, interaction with male colleagues would be inevitable. The sooner they begin, the better.

The article is contributed by Shabana Mahfooz; A Broadcast Journalist and freelance writer. She writes on issues related to women, religion, society and current affairs.

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