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"Does she belong to you?" - my experience as a woman in Pakistan

I had never noticed I had elbows until I came to Pakistan.

Day one in Islamabad and it’s sticky and hot, we’re wandering around trying to acclimatise and help our minds catch up with the new culture and climate our bodies have abruptly found themselves in.

As I try to adjust my bag and camera straps, the sleeves of my t-shirt slowly creep up and my scarf rides down into a tangly mess - the outcome is severe. Bare elbows, all white and wrinkly for the world to see. This evokes more stares than normal, and in turn makes me feel surprisingly self conscious.

It still took me a few weeks to decide to buy a salwar, the cool and colourful baggy pants-shirt combination that many women and men wear. Pretty much all women in Pakistan cover their elbows and their bottoms with a long shirt, even if they’re wearing jeans or leggings underneath.

Once I did buy one, I didn’t look back. Salwars are so comfortable and so colourful, it’s like wearing your favourite summer pyjamas all the time. I’m often my best self in my pyjamas. I opt for the slightly more muted black and gold colours because one never knows when an invite to a wedding and/or funeral might come one's way. It never did but it was good to be prepared.

In Islamabad, an hour most mornings was spent having fancy coffee with lots of yummy mummies in designer sunglasses, where I felt ridiculous being the only one wearing a full salwar. However, the day often ended with a wander through one Rawlpindi’s back alleyways where I felt relieved to be more covered up. In between, there were many, many, many hours at the cricket, where both a salwar and my normal clothes felt suitable.

Journeying to and from the cricket, I’d hop on the metrobus that connects Islamabad with its twin city of Rawalpindi, on a specially designed highway that runs through the centre of the motorway. It takes less than 30 minutes and yet the women that use the bus each morning and evening are a looking glass into the varied experiences and cultural differences of women across Pakistan.

On the bus, I’m bum to bum, bosom to bosom with at least thirty other women. We’re all squeezed together, swaying and keeping each other upright. It’s hot, it’s sweaty and I’m having a lovely time.

Young women holding college books and wearing skinny jeans with long t-shirts stand next to women in full hijabs and older aunties in colourful matching salwars with shopping bags squeeze in next to women in a smart skirt suit combo.

I almost always get chatting to the women who are excited to know where I’m from, where my husband might have got to and, if I’m wearing my salwar, whether or not I am indeed Pakistani. When I clarified the issue, the response was often ‘Ah, you dress so similar to Pakistani girl.’ To put this into perspective, we also got asked if we were Chinese a good few too many times in Pakistan so I think there is some general confusion in this area.

Pakistan is a patriarchal society and men dominate all public spaces. Out and about, you’ll see men - sitting around together drinking tea, men serving you chai, men checking you into hotels, men driving, men watching sports, men at the markets and just generally men men, meeeeeeeeennnnnnnn.

This is not the place for you if you don’t like being in the company of men and just people in general, all of the time, every minute of the day.

We’d often spoken to so many people during the day that we couldn’t speak by the end, reduced to gibbering crumbling blobs who just grunted at each other before crashing into the deepest of slumbers. This is the single best thing about Pakistan and the single most tiring.

I never personally felt threatened or uncomfortable being the only woman around but I am very aware that my experience could have been different if ‘my husband’ hadn’t been with me in both good and bad ways.

In some situations, I gained access to things I wouldn't have otherwise with Mikey with me. In restaurants there is a family section, often on the second floor or tucked away behind a curtain. If I was on my own, I’d have had to sit in those sections of the restaurants and tea houses which were dark and often a bit soulless. Outside the modern parts of big cities, it is uncommon to see women eating out so these areas always seemed unloved and unused. I think I saw a woman eat for the first time on day twelve in Pakistan. DAY TWELVE. This, this, for a woman who loves her grub is quite unbelievable. I mean women are eating, somewhere, I just didn't see it for a long long time.

I also would have felt uncomfortable going to the many cricket, football and polo matches that we were lucky enough to watch. The games are so fun and so popular and watching the polo match in Gilgit was one of the really special moments of our trip. However, I was the only woman amongst sometimes thousands of men and I think I might have felt more intimidated without Mikey there. Most women in Pakistan do not have access to sports, either watching or participating. This is slowly changing though.

For sure, many more people, mainly men, felt comfortable speaking to us because I was with Mike. Many of these conversations were great and I felt part of the conversation. A few times, I was either totally ignored or spoken about or to rather than with. These incidents often just made me laugh because they seem so ridiculous and I believe that no harm was meant.

We were in a gift shop browsing and talking to two older men. They were very friendly and talked to both of us for the majority of the interaction. They gifted us two hats as a welcome to Pakistan and they nearly, nearly won the award of friendliest Pakistanis on the trip but just as the conversation ended they casually asked Michael ‘does she belong to you?’. I really wish I could say we came back with something very witty and sharp in response but we just laughed it off and took our leave.

On the flip side, being a woman in Pakistan allowed me to get access to certain things that Michael couldn’t. When we did meet women, they spoke directly to me. I had some really lovely moments and chats.

Patriarchy, like it or not, is deeply rooted in the culture of Pakistan. Men aren’t used to speaking to women, let alone even seeing women in these spaces. Often bowed heads, averted eyes and indirect questions are in fact meant as a show of respect.

Women are seen as guardians of the family and so Pakistani culture places a huge emphasis on protecting women. Women are often absent from the outside world to protect their integrity and save their honour.

I have many things to say about this but… as a tourist and from my experience as a woman in Pakistan, I really did feel looked after and only received the utmost respect. As a Pakistani woman, the reality can for some look very different. Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Pakistan is one of the world’s least gender-equal countries, ranked 153 out of 156 countries. The stats speak for themselves in terms of how far Pakistan still has to go.

As a guest in Pakistan, I may not agree with the status quo but I do accept that it’s Pakistani culture. It is not my place to be outraged, to scream and shout and it’s definitely not my place to force change. Many Pakistani women are doing a sterling job of that already. The women I was fortunate enough to meet were not downtrodden or meek. Quite the opposite. They were standing as equals and smashing stereotypes by participating in women’s futsal, starting charities and building businesses all alongside heading up their families. I am in awe of the strength and abilities of women around the world and there is much to feel hopeful about.

Back on the metrobus in Islamabad one day and I hear some Urdu bellowing from the men’s section at the back. The message is being relayed down the hordes of men in the centre of the bus. A lone man is demanding that one of the ladies (all older than me) get up from their seat and stand because ‘I’m a guest of Pakistan’. I’m outraged and simultaneously left with that warm glow one gets when being looked after by a complete stranger. It’s a perfect example of the many hypocrisies that exist within me and within Pakistan, unimaginably beautiful in so many ways and yet undoubtedly flawed.

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