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CD 14: Big Choices in Little Pakistan

Brooklyn -

Naseem Qureshi knew that soon after high school she would leave the bustling Brooklyn neighborhood she grew up in to marry a husband chosen for her in her parents’ homeland. She married the Pakistani man her parents selected for her in 1995.

“It happened with my sisters, so I grew up knowing I was the next person in line,” said the 33-year-old first-generation Pakistani-American.

Naseem Qureshi talks about her life in Brooklyn.

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Traditions and Tensions

Qureshi’s parents immigrated 35 years ago to the small Brooklyn neighborhood between Avenue H and Beverly Road known by locals as Little Pakistan. At the heart of this community is Coney Island Avenue, where generations of Pakistani immigrants have set up bakeries, shops, community centers and places of worship. The busy strip is home to approximately 30,000 Pakistanis, according to the American Community Survey.

In this tight-knit community, such traditions as arranged marriage and religious rituals have been passed down from parents to children. But as further generations become immersed in American culture, women in this community are faced with striking a balance between traditions and exploring other opportunities for marriage and careers.

“Children of Pakistanis who are now here in the United States face the biggest clash,” said Jerome Krase, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has written about the Little Pakistan community. “Their parents shield them from mixing with other people. The kids tend to grow up with not much of a sense that they have options.”

Arranged Marriages

Like many other children of immigrants, Qureshi is still learning how to combine her parent’s customs with the relative freedom of American culture. She accepted the arranged marriage, but made sure her future husband knew she could pursue a career if she chose to do so.

Shazia Rafi of the All Pakistan Women’s Association said that acceptance of Pakistani traditions appears to be skipping generations. Young women are witnessing their mothers’ struggles with an arranged marriage and their fight to maintain family relations when that marriage does not work out. Unlike Qureshi, these young women are then more likely to resist accepting an arranged marriage.

“Arranged marriage is a major leap for many woman who have grown up with the freedom of choice that is part of western society,” said Rafi.

Shazia Rafi shares her story and her views on arranged marriages.

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Qureshi’s approach blends both cultures. Her son and daughter are required to pray at least once a day, but she won’t force them to perform the traditional five daily prayers. She wants to teach them the importance of religion and family traditions, but lets them know that unlike her, they have options if they choose to pursue them.

Changing Times

“We used to be scared when we walked into my house, it was very tense,” said Qureshi, comparing her own childhood with that of her offspring. “I want them to know that I am their friend.”

Qureshi’s parents did not speak English and knew very little about the community they lived in.

“They weren’t familiar with anything. The hospital was the one place my mother got used to because she had so many kids. She’d come back from there, and that was basically her life,” Qureshi said.

Her parents were unaware of how financial aid worked and therefore never thought of college as an option for their children. Marriage was the only choice for Qureshi.

Fitting into an ‘American Mold’

Qureshi, however, chose to transform her future husband to fit a more American mold.

“You can’t have that oil in your hair, I don’t want you to look like a typical Paki,” she told him, with one goal in mind: “I wanted him to mix in with me when we returned.”

Naseem Qureshi talks about changing her husband to fit in with her.

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Qureshi’s marriage, still strong after 14 years, works. But like other women in Little Pakistan, she still struggles to divide herself between new- and old-world traditions. She is uncomfortable with public displays of affection. And while she wants her 11-year-old daughter to go to college and pursue a career, she remains uncertain whether or not the girl will be allowed to pick her future husband.

Shazia Rafi talks about her own children’s future marriages.

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Qureshi’s friend, Fahrat “Farah” Affreedi, is the managing editor of a local newspaper called Sada-E-Pakistan , and is working hard to strike a balance as a working mother of three. When she was a reporter, she was often scrutinized by the community for working full time while raising her children. Affreedi felt compelled to take a desk job to avoid public scrutiny. While she misses reporting, the upside is that her new job allows her more time with her children.

Keeping an Open Mind

“If I had a regular 9-to-5 job I would never be able to see my kids,” said Affreedi. “I am constantly on the run but I chose to have this lifestyle.”

As more generations of Pakistani women grow up in this community, the harder it is for them to for them to accept old-world traditions. Local high school counselors often ask Affreedi to advise young girls who have threatened suicide after being asked to participate in an arranged marriage.

Naseem Qureshi and Farah Affreedi share an anecdote of a young couple.

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“We are trying to be open minded,” said Affreedi, “but boyfriend and girlfriends are looked down upon. It just doesn’t happen that way, it is like voodoo.”