“It’s like an adrenaline rush, and I knew I wanted to be that and nothing else,” she said.
Still, medical officials and students acknowledge many women do not go on to practice medicine.
At Dow, for example, just about all the male graduates work as doctors, but only an estimated half the women do, says Umar Farooq, the school’s pro-vice chancellor.
Nationwide figures on how many women graduates forgo actual practice don’t exist, but despite years of increased women’s enrollment, the gender breakdown of doctors remains lopsided.
Of the 132,988 doctors registered with the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, 58,789 are women. The number of female specialists is even smaller: 7,524 out of 28,686.
The pressure on women to get married, have kids and stay home to raise them is powerful.
The prestige of a medical degree gives a woman a boost in marriage prospects, so many parents push their daughters to enroll, many students and faculty said.
Prospective in-laws like the idea of having a doctor in the family and want their sons to have an educated wife to ensure the grandchildren are educated as well.
However, that does not mean they want the woman to actually use her degree and take away from child-raising time.
“They want a doctor label, but they don’t want it to go anywhere. They don’t think you’re a real person who might want to specialize or work on it,” Dow student Beenish Ehsan said.
Her own family supports her completing the initial five years of medical college. However, when she started talking about further studies for a specialization, they worried it would take away from her future family life.
“They’re like, ‘No, but you’ll take care of the house, won’t you?”’ Ehsan said.
“You have to convince them,” she said, adding that too many women do not push back against their families. “Sometimes girls give up too soon, I feel.”
There are also cultural impediments. Women who do work often do not want to do so in rural areas far from their families or do not want night shifts, given the country’s deteriorating law and order. Some male patients only want to be treated by men because they do not want women touching them or because they perceive the men to be smarter and more qualified.
During the 2010 floods that devastated Pakistan, Dow wanted to send medical students to Sindh Province to treat victims, but were hindered by the school’s overwhelmingly female enrollment, admissions director Rana Qamar Masood said.
The boys could go on their own for long stretches. The girls were also lobbying heavily to go, but the school decided to send them in teams on buses with chaperones out of concern for their safety. They would return home each evening, thus limiting how far they could travel.
“We are responsible for these girls. How can we send them out to these hard-hit areas?” Masood said. “These are the ground realities in our society.”
Amid concerns over the number of doctors in the future, proposals are being touted to rebalance the student body.
Masood said she would support some sort of gender bias in admissions to bring in more male students. The PMA has floated the idea of building a number of medical schools just for boys. Already there are five medical schools for women.