Pakistanis in Canada an isolated community

By Zubeida Mustafa

“A major factor which accounts for the inability of Pakistanis in Canada to adjust to their social environment is their inflexibility and intolerance of anything alien and attitude of moral superiority. Since they have been taught that they must not eat pork or drink wine, Pakistani Muslims are inclined to regard a person who does so as necessarily evil.

But it is wrong to judge people or assess their character on the basis of, their eating habits and lifestyle. This only creates a gap between the immigrants and the locals which makes life more difficult for the Pakistani settlers.”

rabab9-17-01-1986This is the view expressed by Rabab Naqvi, a Pakistani by marriage and an Indian by birth, who has lived in Canada since 1969. An active social worker associated with immigrant groups, Rabab acknowledges that her views might be too strong to be palatable for many. But she feels that the Pakistanis in Canada will have to change their attitude if they really wish to adjust.

“No, no, we do not have to start eating pork or drinking alcohol,” she emphatically declared, “but we must learn to accept people who eat pork and drink wine as they are and not sit in moral judgment on them because their culture is different from ours.”

The problem with Pakistanis is that instead of opening up and integrating in Canadian society, they are becoming more and more isolated,” observed Rabab. “Since now there are more of them in Canada than ever before, the Pakistanis have managed to organise themselves. The Pakistani families living in one town form a close ethnic group which extends a lot of support to its members. That is fine, but in the process it also builds a barrier and isolates them from the mainstream of Canadian society. They shut themselves out from the locals with whom they do not intermingle socially. Their parties and get-togethers centre entirely round the Pakistani community.”

“Paradoxically a solitary Pakistani family in a small Canadian town might be more lonely but tends to adjust much faster,” says Rabab. Rabab Naqvi who is the Chairperson of the Department of Documentation Technology in John Abbott College, Montreal, has observed immigrants closely. She is active on the subcommittee for “Visible minorities” (as Pakistanis and other aliens are technically called in Canadian immigration parlance) of the National Action Committee for the status of women. She also gets an opportunity to work with them as a member of NACOI (National Association of Canadians of origin in India).

Too early

She admits that it is too early to expect the Pakistanis in Canada to integrate in the country they have adopted. “After all it took the Europeans with a similar socio-cultural background four to five generations to integrate. Pakistanis are still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada and they are culturally so different, it is only since 1962 that Pakistanis have been migrating to Canada in large numbers. But their intensely critical attitude, lack of tolerance and rigidity are not promoting the process of adjustment and integration, “Rabab said.

“One problem is that most Pakistanis have been brought up in a society where there is a lot of emphasis on controlling behaviour in the name of religion. This can be detrimental to integration, when religion really need not be an obstacle said Rabab.

She gave the example of dress to illustrate her point. Most Pakistani women prefer to wear the shalwar, qameez or a saree, insisting that Western clothes are un-Islamic. “But in the Arab world, from where Islam originated, the shalwar qameez and saree are unknown,” Rabab observed.

“The functional aspect aside, it is more important that one is modestly dressed. How can you call a woman in a saree with her midriff showing less exposed than one in jeans and blouse? Moreover, I find I attract more attention when I go out in a shalwar and qameez than when I am in jeans when nobody even looks at me twice.”

On the Canadian side too there have been problems. For instance inter-cultural information dissemination has not been as strong as it should have been. A number of communication programmes have been introduced since the “Equality Now” report was published in 1982 by the commission set up to look into the immigrants problems. But they tend to concentrate on projecting Canadian society for the benefit of the immigrants.

“Not enough is being done to tell the Canadians about the immigrants and their lifestyles. The media’s role has also not been too effective. This aspect is important and cannot be ignored if Canadians are to show some understanding of our culture and beliefs,” insisted Rabab.

Incidents of racism when a coloured person has been physically assaulted by a white have also been reported but infrequently and definitely not on the scale as in Britain. But that is mainly on account of the small numbers and professional background of the immigrants. Thus in Canada there are barely 10,000 Pakistanis and with most of them being skilled people — doctors, engineers, teachers and scientists with a high socioeconomic status — they do not evoke the same racist reaction as is found in some other countries where unskilled Pakistani workers are present in large numbers.


For instance Rabab has never been subject to any racial discrimination personally and knows no one who has a story to tell of ill-treatment. In fact, her own experience has been positive. With a professional background — having obtained a post-graduate Diploma in Library Science from the University of New South Wales in Australia and then her Masters in Library Science from Ontario — Rabab has been the Chairperson of her Department since 1973. This incidentally is an elective post.

What really worries her is the growing gap between the first and second generation Pakistanis in Canada and their failure to recognise this problem. Rabab has no children of her own having been widowed a few years after her marriage. But she observes her compatriots and feels upset.

“There are basic contradictions in their lives. The first generation Pakistanis who migrated twenty or thirty years back still cling rigidly to the concepts and values held in their home country at the time they left it. It gives them a sense of identity. Many of these ideas are now anachronistic and have been discarded even in Pakistan, but the immigrants are not aware of that since many of them do not visit home very frequently.”

“When parents try to impose these views on their children who were born and have been brought up in Canada, conflicts are bound to arise. But what is worse, no one is willing to concede that there are problems which need to be tackled. For most Pakistanis it is a matter of intense shame to have any problems. The age-old Khandani Sharafat does not allow it. Hence there is no question of talking openly about problems the children might be having. If some children have managed to integrate in Canadian society, they conceal their personal lives from their families. It is sad that they are being driven to talk to outsiders about what bothers them as they cannot open up before their elders. If the parents happen to be open-minded enough to accept a more liberal pattern of behaviour, they insist on keeping it secret from the community.”

Rabab points to the question of girls socialising with boys. Even if the relationship is an innocuous one, daughters do not generally tell their parents about the boys they meet.

“Here the girls are the worse sufferers.. While many families allow their sons to have a female friends and bring them home, the daughters are expected to lead a segregated life. As a result we now have a large number of unmarried girls in their late twenties and thirties. They would never be able to adjust maritally to boys who have lived all their lives in Pakistan. Most of these girls can never hope to marry in Canada.

“Inter-marriages are simply out. Literature produced by Islamic organisations constantly reminds women that as Muslims they cannot marry non-Muslims. But no one. ever speaks of conversion of non-; Muslim boys, which after all is fully permissible.”


Some Pakistanis have tried to bring the youner generation’ Pakistani girls and boys together’ socially by arranging picnics and parties for them. But, according to Rabab, this has so far not suceeded in pushing up the marriage rate in the Pakistani community.

Rabab feels that a major factor contributing to this problem are the double standards most Pakistani men set for their women — be they wives or daughters. In the first place being a good woman is made synonymous with servility. Even though a woman might have a job outside the home — which many Pakistani men have come to accept for financial reasons — she. is not expected to be articulate, show self-confidence and have her own identity. This obviously handicaps Pakistani women especially when they have to compete with their Canadian counterparts.

For the Pakistani expatriates in Canada, Rabab has a few words of advice. “You have to make a lot of emotional adjustment when you leave your country,” she says. “But be realistic in making your choice of what you can hold on to and what you will have to leave behind. It is a difficult choice, but it has to be made for you cannot retain everything you had back home

Source: Dawn, 17 January 1986