When Ayesha Jalil woke up on the morning of her 40th birthday, she knew the time had come to give in and let her burgeoning maternal instincts take over. Teeming with warm feelings of love and what may come, she approached her own mother, eminent politician and commercial pilot Nasreen Jalil, with the decision to adopt a baby from the Edhi Foundation. Although a little apprehensive at first because her daughter was consciously choosing to become a single mother in a society as parochial as ours, Ms Jalil eventually came to terms with her daughter’s bold and admirable decision and encouraged her to do the deed.
“My parents have always given me the freedom to do whatever I want and it was the same this time.” Ayesha—a successful ad filmmaker who’s been running her own production company called Y Productions for over a decade now—tells me proudly, adding that the decision wasn’t very hard to make simply because she didn’t want to miss out on the pleasures of motherhood just because she hasn’t found the right man in her life. Things have gone smoothly for Ayesha over all, and she is now the fulfilled mother of Sasha Jalil, a beautiful baby girl who has changed her life in ways that can only be described as good.
But Sabeen Mahmud, Director of Peach Niche, a Karachi based not-for-profit NGO, hasn’t been as lucky. Sabeen, who lives with her mother and ailing grandmother approached the Edhis back in 2010 hopeful to welcome a baby girl into her life, but was implicitly denied a chance to sprinkle her boundless love on a child that we’re sure would have found Sabeen to be an extraordinary mother.
Here, for this special Valentine’s Day issue, Xpozé talks to the two women who defied the norm and made a conscious decision to adopt children and give their love and affection a different kind of outlet, despite being decisively single…
Have you always had such strong maternal instincts?
Absolutely! I’ve always been into children. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve always used to have at least one kid attached to my side whenever and wherever I went. It didn’t matter whether it was a friend’s kid or my brother’s or sister’s children. The kids would keep changing because they would naturally start living their own life after reaching the age of 4-5 years, but I’d still be there, waiting for the next one to come along so I could take over them!
What was your take on adoption before you actually went through with it yourself?
I guess the idea itself wasn’t quite alien to me because my sister had adopted a child five years ago. Of course we were scared back then of silly things, you know, like what would people say; whether we’d be able to bond with her or not and all the other day to day problems etc. And this was despite the fact that she’s married and has a loving husband. This time around things should have been harder, but I was surprisingly much more confident and sure about everything and my family was perfectly ready to embrace the child as well.
When did the idea of adopting a child yourself seriously start dwelling in your mind?
The morning of the day I turned 40, I just told myself that if I wanted to do it, NOW is the time! I didn’t want to be a 60-year-old mother of a teenager!
How did your parents react to this sudden, life-changing resolution?
Initially it was a bit of a shock for my mother, but I don’t blame her because she probably thought I was shutting down my life, you know; that adopting a child at this stage would mean I’d never get married. She asked me what would happen if one day I finally did find a good man and decide to marry him, and I told her that it’d be like a “Buy one get one free deal”! I told her that if a man doesn’t accept my baby, then I won’t accept him and his mentality. My dad however took the decision in a stride and was totally cool about it right from the beginning.
Raising a child as a single mother is never easy, and you had decided to jump into this pool or endless responsibilities consciously. Were you ever fearful you might not be able to do it right?
Jumping into it initially was a little scary but it’s been the most wonderful experience. I have a very compassionate family that’s always been there for me. The support and love my family shows me has made the decision much easier for me than it probably is for others. I live at home with my parents who’re very supportive, and my brother-in-law visits me and Sasha at least twice a week just to play with her! I know I can call my chachi (aunt) in the middle of the night if I ever need her help and she’ll come to my rescue. Really, I’m very lucky because I never had to deal with the fear of doing it all alone.
People often tend to be a little insensitive about these issues. Did you ever feel you were unnecessarily disparaged because you’re single and still went ahead with the adoption?
Honestly, I really don’t care what people say. I’ve never felt the negativity because people never say it to my face. Maybe they’re afraid of me and think I’ll take them out of something? Besides, why should I forgo the pleasure of raising a child just because I haven’t found the right man in my life? I’ve learned that it’s only when you lack something yourself that you go on and criticize others. So, if anyone has a problem with me, it’s their own stupidity and problem to deal with.
How long did it take to prepare yourself—both physically, emotionally—to actually visit the Edhi center?
Like I said, I had decided to do it the day I turned 40, but it took me almost four months to gather the courage to actually walk into Bilquis Edhi’s office! I’d heard all kinds of stories about her and the adoption process. When one of my friends who has adopted a child went to her office to fill out the form, Bilquis Edhi told her to come collect the baby in an hour! So you see, you don’t know if you’ll get the baby right away or if you’ll have to wait a year, and that is a little unnerving.
I was ready to kiss my freedom goodbye. I even went on a three-week vacation where I partied really hard to get the anxiety out of my system. During those four months, my mother had also come to terms with it. My sister was gung-ho from the beginning because she’d done it before and she knew I could too. Her confidence was a major factor in preparing me for motherhood.
Can you talk me through the whole process at the adoption center as experienced by you? What was meeting Bilquis Edhi like?
Well, I was surprised to find out that she doesn’t do any formal interviews. She just talks to you and basically gets all the information out of you as you speak. I think she’s an incredibly astute woman and asked me quite relevant questions like what kind of money I make and what kind of long term financial securities I would be able to provide to the child, because of the obvious inheritance laws issues related to adopted children. Her major concern is securing a better future for the children. She then gave me a form that I filled out in Urdu and asked me what would happen if one day I decided to get married and had my own children. I gave her the same answer I’d given my mother four months ago: “Buy one get one free deal”!
She was generally noncommittal. She obviously has lots of options as far as potential adoptive parents are concerned, and doesn’t get your hopes up right away. She knew my sister and saw that her adopted child was doing great despite the fact that my sister had her own baby 9 months after adopting, so I was really hoping that would work towards our advantage.
And did you have any preferences as far as the baby’s sex was concerned?
Bilquis Edhi had asked me if I wanted a boy or a girl and I hadn’t really thought about it before that. I would have been OK with either as I get along really well with boys too. I was advised that it would be better to get a girl though because at one stage or another, boys need their fathers. Besides, in Pakistan boys are harder to adopt because their demand is much higher than girls… so I finally decided to get a girl and it was the best decision of my life!
Tell me about the day you got the phone call that changed your life forever…
Six days after my visit to the Bilquis Edhi center, I got a call from them telling me to rush down to the Kharadar because they had my baby! It was an awesome moment, and I remember we rushed to Mothercare first to get some essentials for her because these children usually don’t have anything on them when they’re rescued. Bilquis Edhi didn’t tell me anything about the baby’s background. She advised me to get some tests done because most babies she rescues are malnutritioned and some of them might even have STDs. Naturally, the babies could be coming in from all kinds of conditions and it’s better to get them checked out instantly. Anyway, Sasha gave us a small Hepatitis B scare but Alhamdolillah (by the grace of God) she turned out to be perfectly healthy.
I can’t really explain the feeling, but once she was in my hands she was my baby, you know? We had an instant connection. The whole family was at the hospital to welcome her and everything just fell into place!
So basically, you didn’t get any time to preplan the nursery or get her toys and clothes in advance?
Look, God gives parents 9 months for a reason. I think it’s enough time to prepare for the baby’s arrival. Sasha came into my life 6 days after I actually filled out the forms! I didn’t get any time to prepare for her arrival beforehand at all! It was after I’d brought her home that I found myself doing the mental math; I was budgeting and planning how I was going to look after her financially. This experience has completely opened my eyes to what men must go through once they get married and start having children. The responsibility of looking after someone other than yourself definitely takes some time getting used to even if the love is there.
How important to you is it that Sasha knows you’re not her biological mother?
Of course I plan to tell her that I’m not her biological mother. I’m single and I have nothing to hide from her. My sister tells her daughter that she came from her heart while her younger brother came from her belly. In fact, the brother also wants to come from her heart! I plan on telling Sasha the same thing as she grows up. The idea is to reinforce the love that I feel for her.
Sasah’s 4 year old cousin recently asked me that if I was her mother, then who was her father? So I know that Sasha will ask me this question will eventually. So, as long as I’m comfortable being a single mother and I’m strong for her, I have faith that she’ll grow up to be a strong confident woman as well.
Besides the fact that she’s a cute little human that you now love immensely and look out for, how has Sasha’s arrival in your life changed you and your family?
She has brought incredible amounts of joy into all our lives. My father lives downstairs and every morning he calls out to his “Lado” (Lovely) and the Lado goes running to her “Abba” (father). After playing with him for a while, she wakes my mother up and spends a good hour and a half with her before she leaves for the office. They also spend their evenings together. Sasha has taken over our lives totally. It’s funny, but she’s exactly like me! She’ll be nice and social but then a little monster comes out when things don’t go her way. Her similarities to me are fascinating. We’re a perfect match for each other and I now truly believe in the notion of soul mates!
So the reality has been better than expectation?
Totally! I didn’t put my hopes up to high, and when I got her, I told myself that if I wanted to be a good mother, I’d have to jump into it without any safety net, and that’s exactly what I did. I rolled up my sleeves and took the challenge on, and so far things are going great!
But surely raising a toddler has got to have its share of little hitches and day-to-day problems?
Realistically speaking, of course there are problems that I’ve faced on a day to day basis. When she wakes up in the middle of the night screaming because she’s got cramps, I’m the one who has to wake up and look after her. No one else is going to do that for us. I’ve always been an independent working woman, but my priorities have changed. She’s on top of the list now, and I’ll do anything in my power to make life as easy as it can be for Sasha. I’ve moved my office at home for a year and I’m learning to manage my time a little better. If there’s ever a conflict between work and her, I know what my priority is. But overall, she’s a good little baby. She doesn’t give me a hard time at all.
Even though you’re confident you won’t let the lack of a father’s name ever haunt Sasha, I believe you’ve already faced some problems in trying to register and getting her documentation in order?
Yes I have. I just don’t get the local legal system at all. When I went to get her Bay form made, I faced some problem because the fields in the form only ask for a father’s name and don’t provide for a guardian’s name. When I asked them for advice, the authorities there simply refused to register her!
I tried to investigate what the normal procedure to register adopted children is and I was blatantly told that adopted children aren’t registered in Pakistan. I think that’s preposterous! You won’t believe this, but I actually contemplated getting a fake divorce, which would have been easy to do, but decided against it because I didn’t want to complicate things for Sasha when she grew up. Besides, my mother’s high-profile so I didn’t want to take any risks. Eventually I decided to file a case against Nadra (National Database and Registration Authority of Pakistan) and the Interior ministry last year, which is still running right now.
What kind of a solution are you hopeful of achieving? Did you ever wonder if filing a case against Nadra and the Interior Ministry would be in vain? What’s the status on it now?
Well, I don’t know about that, but here’s an Islamic ideology department that consults with Nadra and they’re trying to come up with a solution to this problem, which isn’t just something that would benefit me. It would help a lot of other people as well. I was recently told that perhaps writing ‘Abdullah’ (A generic Muslim man’s name) in the box where the father’s name is supposed to go might solve the problem, which really doesn’t make sense to me… I’m simply asking them to make a slight alteration in the form and adding a ‘Guardian’ option to it, which isn’t a very peculiar request if you ask me. I just don’t understand what the big issue is when we all know there are over a million children in Pakistan who need to have their Bay-forms made. Why are they denying them their basic right as Pakistanis by not letting them register? Anyway, I guess the Supreme Court is active and the Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court is also personally involved in my case, so hopefully something positive will come out of it soon.
I’ve been lucky in the sense I was able to get a NICOP (National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis) for Sasha. The NICOP has helped me get her passport made, which was really important because I travel a lot.
Adoption has some positive and negative implications in Islam. What’s your take on it all?
My lawyer put it right: In Islam, your identity is your mother’s name, then what’s the problem? Then there’s the mehram / na-mehram issue (Islamic law regarding living and coming into contact with people of the opposite sex who’re not immediate blood relatives), which is a nonissue for me because Sasha’s a girl. As far as the inheritance issues go, they’re really not anybody’s concern!
The Edhi’s are obviously doing a remarkable job, but they’re often met with hushed accusations for being somewhat shady. How was your experience interacting with Bilquis Edhi? What’s your take on their noticeably positive and allegedly negative activities?
I think they’re doing a fantastic job! Sure there are a lot of accusations, but we don’t know anything for sure right? And besides, they’re doing a lot more good than they “might” be doing wrong. Their positive activities are quite commendable and we should focus on those more. Bilquis Edhi may not speak English and she may not be equipped with the best of technology, but she’s a very sharp woman who has a lot of courage to do this kind of work she does. She told me she’s often retrieved dead bodies of newborns from garbage cans that are half eaten by dogs. Can you believe that? Let’s try to change the people who that to their own children first and then think about prosecuting someone who is doing so much good! I give them a big YES all the way!
I know it’s a long shot, but are there any active support groups for adoptive parents/single parents here that you considered going to or have already joined?
There are, actually, and I even went to a support group for adoptive parents once, but never followed up! It was an interesting group but it just wasn’t my thing… Three of my friends have adopted children, my sister has adopted a child and now I have Sasha. I think we’re a good enough support system for each other!
How has Sasha changed the strong independent single working woman: Ayesha Jalil?
I love traveling and I’m very much into good cars and handbags. I haven’t had to give up on any of those yet but I’ll obviously have to tone down a bit now. I’ve become much more patient and compassionate. Having Sasha has made me see things in a different light; I’m definitely a better person now. I look out for another person now rather than just myself, and that’s motherhood, I guess! I’m enjoying it thoroughly! I used to be all over the place until last year and now my life has a routine. Sasha has given my life purpose.
What’s your message to other singletons as well as couples who’re considering adoption? Why is adoption better than having your own children?
Three months ago, I would had advised any potential parent thinking about adoption to think it through properly before jumping in, you know, to be practical about it… but now, as Sasha’s growing older and her personality is beginning to take shape and our bond’s growing stronger, I would suggest everybody who’s even slightly considering it to just go for it right away! Everything will fall into place itself, believe me. If you’re inclined towards it, then let me assure you, adopting a child is the best things you can do for yourself!
Did you always have such strong motherly instincts?
Well, as you grow older, certain things and emotions develop automatically within you. I obviously didn’t have these motherly instincts when I was a little girl, but I’ve always loved kids. I grew up as an only child so there were never too many people around the house, and that’s turned me into a kind of person who is very comfortable with her own company; I don’t like having too many people around… Still, I love kids. I think I started developing this serious love for children some time in my late 20s.
Adopting a child is certainly a huge, life-altering decision. When did you start considering it seriously?
My mother is a teacher and we love having these long, serious discussions about parenting and children’s education. I think it was in my early 30s when I first discussed the idea with her… we discussed it on and off for about five years and finally in November 2010, I went and met Mrs Edhi, filled out their adoption forms, and gave her all the documentation etc. It took me a while to actually go and do it because I was still trying to figure out how I would manage my work and having a child, you know. It’s not a very easy decision to make. But then, one day, I just told myself that there would never be a perfect time to do it; that it would never happen if I didn’t just go ahead and do it!
So, after four-five years of serious contemplation, you were ready to take on the challenge of consciously becoming a single parent?
Yes, I was. I had thought long and hard about the kind of changes a baby would bring about in my life. Instead of waiting to create the space for an ideal time for a baby, I had decided to just go ahead and welcome one into my life. I had total clarity about how I would proceed… I was confident I’d manage the changes and take all the challenges of motherhood as and when they came to me.
Did you ever feel you were in a disadvantaged position as far as adopting a baby is concerned because you didn’t have a husband?
I guess you could say that my being single is a disadvantage but it’s never bothered me and the thought of getting married just to have or adopt a baby never crossed my mind. Being single is very much a conscious choice. I’ve always been quite categorical about it; I’m strongly against the whole institution of marriage: I think it’s an outdated, almost medieval tradition. But now, as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that you can’t go through life saying ‘No’ to everything… I understand there are norms that people are comfortable following and in live you really can’t have everything go your way…
How supportive has you mother been about these decision of yours? Has she ever pressurized you to consider marriage or not go through with the adoption?
I’m grateful I have a mother who’s always stood by me in whatever I’ve done. Like I said, we’re very close and have hours and hours of discussions on various issues. We’ve talked a lot about marriage and children and education because it’s a great area of academic interest to both of us. She’s never pressurized me into getting married. As far as the adoption goes, it’s definitely not something I would ever have been able to do without my mother’s help and support. We’re both working women and I was relying on her backing all the way.
Tell me about the day you finally decided to visit the Edhi center and fill out the forms.
I went to the Edhi center with a famous adoption lawyer and my mother, and I’m grateful to them both for that. I don’t know if I would have even managed to fill out the initial forms at the Edhi center if they weren’t there with me because I think those forms are very sexist. The first piece of paper I had to fill out started with fields like ‘Father’s Name’ and ‘Father’s Occupations’ etc. When I first saw the form, I thought I wouldn’t be able to go through with any of it.
I had called Kashana-e-Itfal-o-Naunehal, another adoption NGO, earlier and they’d basically asked me to go to hell because I wasn’t married, so I was really counting on the Edhis to help me out.
So what exactly happened when you met Bilquis Edhi?
Meeting Bilquis Edhi was an interesting experience. We talked more about other things like her thinning hair and the weddings she’d recently attended than the actual adoption! She asked me why I hadn’t gotten married and I just told her because I hadn’t met anyone good enough yet. I even asked her to find me a good husband because I didn’t want to discuss my viewpoints on marriage with her. She asked me a few other questions like my caste etc., then one of the ladies at the center who deals with potential adoptive parents asked me to send in an application in Urdu, which I dropped off the next morning.
Do you blame their system or do you think you’ve been treated differently than other prospective parents?
Well, right now I only had an issue with those forms. I believe the world has changed and so should those forms. There are lots of independent single working women that bring up perfectly normal children. Having two parents is an age old tradition, fair enough; but having two parents in the house doesn’t confirm the child would have a happy life. I mean, the husband could be a drunkard or a wife beater for all you know! I have nothing against them exercising due diligence when handing out babies, in fact, I think it’s very important to do so, but at the same time they shouldn’t sideline single women like me just because they don’t have husbands because we can be great mothers as well.
I would have been happy to give a long interview, great references and all sorts of paperwork they required, but I was horrified at the fact that I was being judged on the fact whether I have a husband or not. We have thousands of abandoned children in Pakistan. If there are even 20 women like me who’re single and want to adopt, that’s 20 children who can have homes!
Did you have any preferences as far as the baby’s age and sex are concerned?
Yes, I was very clear about the fact that I wanted a girl; I didn’t have any doubts about that at all. On the newborn aspect I was willing to be a little flexible though. I would have been OK with a 2-3 month old girl as well.
I understand you didn’t actively follow up after filling out the forms. What was it that put you off, so to speak, from chasing after them to give you a child?
After I dropped off the application, they told me they would get back to me as soon as they had a baby. I’ve been waiting for their call for 14 months now. It’s really funny because they can’t possibly have run out of abandoned children looking for good homes! I called them up a couple of times to inquire about my status but to be honest; I wasn’t very persistent because I don’t like being so. I was told that I’d have to keep being persistent and calling them up, but honestly, I can’t do that! If someone says to me: Don’t call us, we’ll call you, then I take that at face value and would much rather prefer waiting. Maybe I should have been more persistent. I only called them 5-6 times during the first few months, but stopped in early 2011 and have been waiting for their call ever since.
Have you met with other agencies or individuals who could help you adopt a child now that the Edhis seem to have forgotten about you?
Well, I’ve spoken to Dr. SherShah Syed who’s a famous gynecologist and activist. He’s offered to look into my case and help out in any way that he can. Then I got in touch with this other person who runs an adoption agency in the northern areas. He flew down here to meet me and see if I was serious enough, but then he too never called back. My friend Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy also introduced me to someone, but they ended up asking me for money, and that sounded a little odd to me. If someone’s running an agency and asking for donations, that is understandable because you know it’s going towards administration and running the center. But this was almost like buying a child. It didn’t feel right at all!
Do you have any grievances against Mr & Mrs Edhi for not considering your case with fervor?
Not at all. All issues in life have different angles and one needs to get into the complexities to really understand them. I don’t want to come across as blaming the system or anyone. Of course I was a little surprised at how ad-hoc everything was at the Edhi center, but having said that, both Edhi Sahab and Bilquis Edhi are wonderful people who’re doing some incredible work, and their system seems to be working.
Maybe the time wasn’t right for me right now. I was just grateful that she met me and gave me her time. You know, you don’t understand these things until you experience them yourself. I really don’t blame them because they obviously have their own limitations because of the community in which they primarily operate. They’re probably just trying to be fair about the whole thing…
But you haven’t given up, have you? How do you plan to cope with something like this?
I actually went ahead and got myself a cat to fulfill all the maternal instincts I had! I remember when I’d first written on Facebook about my decision to adopt a baby, Mohsin Saeed told me I was crazy and advised me to get a cat instead. I remember I was quite offended by his comment back then and told him he was very callous and insensitive… but then when I actually got the kitten, my life changed completely! The poor thing had a genetic disorder and died last year though, and it took me a long time to build the courage to get another one. The new kitten had to suffer a few days of ‘sautela sulook’ (cold shoulder) from me but I adore her now! She has a totally different personality. She’s like my baby, and has helped ease the uneasiness and aggravation of not getting a baby. Life’s funny that way… you never know what’s in store for you.
What’s your message to other single men and women like yourself who’re looking to adopt children? How and what would you advise them to do differently for a better result?
Well, it’s not a very complicated process for couples. Without coming off as sanctimonious, I really wish more people would consider adoption because there are so many abandoned children out there who could use your love. I would especially encourage families who already have a couple of their own kids to think about it more seriously.