Sexism and Racism : "My" Pakistani patriarchy is better than Berlin

The sexism Hani Yousuf experienced in her Berlin years was blatant and bordering on harassment. Therefore she left the German capital - and found a new way to develop as a woman journalist in Pakistan.

Karachi based journalist Hani Yousuf: "Berlin sexism was blatant and bordering on harassment"
Karachi based journalist Hani Yousuf: "Berlin sexism was blatant and bordering on harassment"Foto: Hani Yousuf

I often quip about how I left Berlin because of the men there and how I moved back to Pakistan because “my” patriarchy is better than “theirs”. I’m only half joking. I did leave because the sexism was blatant and bordering on harassment. I also left because of the mass assumption I encountered that I must, somehow, be used to this because I was from Pakistan and, whatever Germany’s problems with misogyny, they were still better off than Pakistan. I moved back to my hometown, Karachi, to work with Associated Reporters Abroad, a Berlin-based start-up news agency, in August of last year after a year-and-a-half of being knee deep in sexism and racism in Berlin. Yes I just called the spade the spade. And, contrary to popular opinion, I find it easier to be a woman journalist in Pakistan.

There are several reasons for this. I live in urban upper middle class Pakistan and have class privilege. And, Karachi is home, where I understand the culture better and can mediate it better. Yet another reason is the very patriarchal concept of “lihaz” or “respect for women.” It is a stifling concept, but it has protected me from the blatantly sexist remarks I got in Berlin. Quite similar to political correctness in the US, which protected me from both sexist and racist comments while living there. But, my argument: whatever the reasons, I find it easier to be a career woman, in my chosen career as an English-language journalist, in Pakistan than I did in Germany.

I moved to Berlin, first as a fellow of the Axel Springer Akademie. I worked at Die Welt’s foreign desk initially. I was surprised because so few women inhabited the halls and many did not make it beyond lower editing positions. I wrote about how Newsline, where I started my career, was started by women that reported and won awards for the hard news they covered. And, that Die Welt could do with more women. The editor in chief was not amused. The next morning he said something about the “privileged woman” from the country of millions of suppressed women. I, too, was amused at being called privileged by the “white man” himself. I suppose I have what he never will have, I often quipped, Exotic Female Privilege. 

Exotic Female Privilege made me more than vulnerable to inappropriate, non professional advances. I once casually mentioned trying to get invited to a gala event. A colleague responded that another, significantly older gentleman would be happy to take me, even though he preferred blondes. Another colleague unabashedly made personal compliments everyday. Once, I bumped into another coworker outside of work. I wore a sundress but a pashmina covered my bare shoulders. I mentioned going to the immigration office where my visa needed to be renewed. This had been tough. “If your shawl slips off your shoulders like right now, it shouldn’t be too difficult,” he said. He apologised instantly and I told him I’d let it go this time. Only, this wasn’t the first time.

Through my time in Berlin, whenever I spoke of my experiences, I was told this happened everywhere or perhaps that I imagined it. Maybe it was the way I dressed? My sarcastic answer to that would often be, I did grow up in Pakistan. Another good one was maybe it was intended to be a compliment. Or, my favourite, did you get a promotion?

But, it wasn’t like this anywhere else in the world. As an ambitious woman, I get a kick out of meeting people, networking and socialising. I cold email and cold call people most places in the world, including Pakistan. Once my placement at Axel Springer was over, I made a trip to London. I cold emailed a bunch of older journalists there, asking for meetings and informational interviews. All of them invited me into their office, looked at my CV and gave me advice. One of these was the editor at the Economist. 

The handful of people who didn’t find my story entirely implausible assured me it was different elsewhere in Germany. Die Welt was too right-wing to be anything but supremely sexist and racist. Perhaps, but I experienced sexism from men, and even women, across the political spectrum. In fact, I recall a time when the editor of the foreign desk at Die Welt, stood up for me while another section of the paper commissioned a piece on what it was like for me to grow up in rapidly-Islamising Pakistan, or something like that. I also remember him supporting my oped about the lack of women at Die Welt. Alternatively, another journalist, more “left” insisted on meeting me after hours every time we tried to set up a networking meeting. This went on for weeks until I declined the late night meetings and insisted on a 3 pm coffee. I never heard from him again. These are only a few of the incident, too subtle to be reported and too easily explained away.

Working for “women’s rights” in this post industrialist economy was too fraught with tragic irony, though, and I often thought there were other more important things that needed to be done in my own country. Here, I found it much easier to be taken seriously and I did not need to deal with sentences that started with “Even in Pakistan…” And, of course, whenever I do talk about the sexism I faced in Berlin, I’m met with as much scepticism in Pakistan as I am in Germany.

by Hani Yousuf

Hani Yousuf is a Karachi-based journalist, leading the South Asia team for Associated Reporters Abroad. Her work focuses on immigration ad women. Yousuf is founder of the blog This Karachi Life and tweets at @haniyousuf and @thiskarachilife. You can find the German version of this article here at Tagesspiegel, too.