Pakistanis Love of Titles
Typically, we Pakistanis are quite conscious of our status. When someone becomes lawyer, he proudly displays it on his/her vehicle registration plate; a protector of law flouting it. When someone becomes either a member of national or provincial assembly, he/she also goes to all lengths to remind everyone about their status.
This love of status and titles does not stop there. We call our senior colleagues, bosses and teachers as ‘Sir’, oblivious of the real meaning of it and its origin and although it is a very real title, it has taken its very own meaning in Pakistan.
Typically in Pakistan, the title of Dr. was confined to medical practitioners and carried a certain prestige with it, though I feel the prestige is more with the profession rather than just the title. Pakistan always had medical doctors but very few doctor of philosophy, aka, PhD doctors. Every since the Musharraf regime which boosted the HEC and Pakistanis started gaining their doctorate degrees in droves, did PhD graduates come to the fore.
As love of titles transcends all boundaries, the PhD graduates loved being called a “Doctor”. And they were not wrong completely, a PhD graduate is entitled to attach the suffix of “Dr.” with his name. Yet, I feel it went a tad bit beyond just a title and become a matter of honor and prestige. Who can forget the rant of a famous Pakistani politician when not being referred to as a Doctor (although the politician in question was a medical practitioner).
I have primarily met with senior professors and researchers from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Ireland. There also the official title is of a Dr. or a Prof., yet it never happened that I get to ask a name of someone and he responds with Dr. Fulan (Fulan is an Arabic/Urdu word for somebody). They would simply and humbly respond with their first name or the full name if the occasion demands so.
The first time I realized how it has strongly this love of being called a Dr. has permeated the academic society in Pakistan was when once during my PhD I visited Karachi and went to a teacher of mine who constantly referred to a colleague of his as Dr. Fulan, though the third person in question once used to be his student. I understand he was giving him respect in this way and I have no problem with it. And I also am not trying to promote the culture of the western society where you call every one using his first name, if he is known to you, irrespective of age and status. I still end up calling my teachers “Sir” because that’s how we have been brought up, though the old Urdu terms of ‘Ustaad Ji’ or ‘Hazrat’ should have been more natural for us.
Another indication about this love of titles can be seen in the culture the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) is trying to promote. It has now coined a title of Engr. for every engineer out their in the society, probably in response to the medical practitioners being called Dr. Initially I thought it was only for formal communication but once I had the chance to visit PEC and met an officer and asked him his name. He replied “Engr. Fulan” and I almost asked him how come his parents were so visionary that at birth they named him Engr ;-).
I once saw a visiting card of the Dean of some faculty at a new but famous university in Karachi having a large white building somewhere near the KPT flyover. It read, Engr. Prof. Dr. Fulan…and I was dumbfounded. Being a full professor is the pinnacle of academic stations and one does not need any other title yet this gentleman found a need to not only add the title of Dr. but also of Engr. Isn’t being a full professor a great honor in itself?
Generally there is no problem with titles but it becomes one when one tries to demean those who do not have that title, as if they are not equal beings. Generally in a department within a university one would have both PhD and MS graduates. For official communication, the use of titles seem appropriate but it always felt strange that even when sitting in meetings, communicating with each other or sending emails or what not, one should find the need of using them.
Thus when I started my first job in Pakistan post PhD, I and my fellow PhD faculty members slowly started promoting the culture of not using titles in informal communication and meetings, preferring to address everyone by their names while adopting more local ways of showing respect.
This helped improve the environment, which was already good, a great deal. The non-PhD faculty felt respected and more inclusive in the department and helped promote the culture of acknowledging equally important role of everyone, irrespective of qualifications. Only removing the titles, I agree, is not enough. It is only symbolic and real change can only happen if all members were equally listened to and their opinions given weight. But it did help and the removal of titles was supplemented by other measures as well.
However, unfortunately, soon after leaving the institute, I noticed a stark change, at least to the department I belonged to in the Institute. Unfortunately, a number of faculty members left at the same time and were replaced by people who were fond of titles. And no wonder, that soon enough the titles of Drs and Engrs started reappearing in emails and unofficial documents (Since I am technically on a leave so I still receive emails and documents). And to top it all, the non-PhDs were not being involved in the decision making process and were started to being referred to as simply, Teaching Fellows.
No wonder, symbols and titles are important and influence people how they interact with others.