“Aap bohat dalair hain.”
“Acha? Waisey kabhi kabhi hona parhta hai…”
“Haan, magar hadd se ziyada. Itna ziyada nahi hona chahiyay.”
‘You’re very courageous.’
‘Really? Well, sometimes you have to be…’
‘Yeah, but this is more than is necessary.’
I was traversing the no-man’s land of gendered interactions in Pakistan, and trying to chart my own path, wishing there was a beaten track I could meander back to or a guide book to help me through. I was being chastised by my companion, Imtiaz, a local of Khaplu who made a living by driving tourists around the area. He was explaining to me the dangers faced by a woman traveling on her own.
“If you were a man,” he said, “there would’ve been no issue. I would’ve sent you off with any of these cars heading to Skardu. But you’re a woman, and there’s only one long seat in that wagon, not like this jeep with two separate seats. How would you have sat with those men?”
I muttered something about keeping my backpack next to me as a kind of barrier so that I wouldn’t be squeezed next to someone.
“My conscience does not permit me to send you like this,” said Imtiaz.
Apart from the obvious paternalism of his monologue, Imtiaz was being awfully realistic, and in ways that I sometimes forget to be. I had traveled from Lahore to Skardu (taking the Daewoo bus to Islamabad, then the flight to Skardu, and finally the jeep ride from Skardu airport to Shigar) by myself, but I was unable to find a way back to Shigar from Khaplu because the last mode of public transport left at 2.30pm and it was now evening. But really, my “difficulty” was that I was a woman traveling alone.
My interactions with women occurred mostly within private spaces
I continue to think about the relationships I formed in the month I spent in Baltistan. I utilized my status as an outsider as fully as I could, occasionally flouting cultural norms, sometimes even offending local sensibilities. I often found myself in precarious situations, but at all times I was filled with the knowledge that I was challenging existing patriarchal structures and confronting sexism.
I’ve been told that women don’t travel alone, or that they shouldn’t. That they should return home before nightfall. That they should never spend time alone with male strangers. There is a never-ending list that I could select choice quotes from to paraphrase here. I found that this was not always the best advice. My interactions with women occurred mostly within private spaces: in homes, or at the Abruzzi School with some female teachers. Most of my public interactions were with men, who control and command life outside the home. As a coordinator for the teaching garden at the Abruzzi School, I had a lot of administrative control, something that local women don’t usually have. While handling advertising and fundraising-related issues for the teaching garden, my work included holding meetings with the all-male Shigar Town Management (TMS) committee, haunting the local printer and photocopier shops in the bazaar at Hussaini Chowk, (a popular spot for local men to hang out), and meeting with the school trustees (all male) and local politicians (all male). There is no manual or how-to guide for navigating this male-dominated world of public spaces and official establishments. I know that whether in Lahore, or in Shigar, during any kind of engagement with public space, it can take less than two minutes for a male-bodied person to render me utterly vulnerable, and I hate the heterosexist standards and tilted social dynamics that permit this.
It can take less than two minutes for a male-bodied person to render me utterly vulnerable
My interactions with the men of Baltistan were mostly favourable and, at most times, wonderful, but I remain unclear about how I was perceived. As an outsider, I had privileges that local women did not have, such as freedom of movement. How could I extend these privileges to the local women, when they were only accorded to me because I was not from within the local community? At the same time, despite being called ‘Angraiz’ by the local children, my Pakistani identity did not waver: I was at all times an ‘outsider,’ but never a ‘foreigner.’ Despite all my privileges, I was still never given quite the same freedoms that foreign men and women were granted. I was still being judged within a moral compass that guided social and religious behaviour deemed appropriate for Pakistani women.
During Ramzan, on one of the days that I wasn’t fasting, I remember being terribly hungry and exhausted, and urgently needing a real meal to keep going for the rest of the day. It was noon. Usually I would subsist on biscuits and fruit for lunch and eat iftaar with everyone else. That day, I went to a restaurant at Hussaini Chowk with the local project coordinator and asked for lunch. I was served food, but my companion would not be served food because he was a local Muslim male who had no reason to be exempted from fasting.
My life was more cosmopolitan in a remote village in the north than it could ever be in the urban sprawl of Lahore
It is abundantly clear that local tourism in Pakistan needs to be encouraged and developed. The state can and should provide safe and accessible public transport, and lodges or motels, alongside detailed maps and other handy information that is publicly available. Tour operating companies are already playing a role in helping Pakistani travelers discover their own country instead of seeking out vacations abroad. I guess it helps in this situation that less and less countries are willing to grant visas to holders of the green passport. Maintaining different local and foreign price rates is a practice that must be monitored. In principle I agree with charging locals less and making museums and national parks accessible to all people, regardless of class. On the surface, it is easy to charge higher rates to foreign nationals and maintain much cheaper prices for locals. But the cheap rates for locals tend to equate the cheapened value of the entry ticket with that of the site, and in this way encourage careless perusal of the site. This is one of the reasons why most of our historic monuments have been encroached upon, stuffed with trash, used as cricket fields or message boards for people to declare their love, philosophies, poetries, dates of birth, etc. During the time that I spent at Shigar Fort, I learned to recognize the different kinds of tourists present by the state of the toilet. Wads of tissue flung on the floor, and a general mess usually meant lots of local tourists; tissue paper in the toilet bowl usually meant Western tourists. (Of course this wasn’t always the case; real life is thankfully never so consistently stark!)
However, the more pressing questions to ask ourselves in this moment are: how can we take pride in our own heritage and in our own culture as a nation? How can we respect each other and the earth and the architecture and archeology that has been passed down to us in inheritance? How can we collectively share public spaces and fight to make them inclusive of all? We need to ask these questions before we can move forward as a nation that owns its past and present, without cowering in shame or hiding from itself.
On the morning of the 5th of August, I found myself at Skardu airport, waiting for my flight to Islamabad to be announced. The sole flight that arrives and departs from this beautiful airport is the one that flies to Islamabad and back. The airport itself is a site of unreal wonder: there is sandy desert, and a ring of snow-capped mountains that rises up to meet the unfailingly clear blue skies with patches of white cloud. Skardu airport is an event in itself – it has been the site of many an argument over who gets to board the plane when it flies after a week of cancellations. A friend cautioned me the night before my flight, advising me to get to the airport hours in advance and not give up my claim to a confirmed seat, advising me to invent connecting flights from Islamabad if I had to in order to fly that day (the previous day’s flight had been cancelled due to bad weather).
There is never any certainty with this particular flight. In the departure lounge, there was lots of chatter and anxious pacing up and down as passengers waited for the announcement for the flight to board. It was the most diverse departure lounge of any Pakistani airport I’ve seen. The Northern Areas are far less familiar to ordinary Pakistanis than they are to foreigners. Filled with trekkers from all over returning from expeditions to the K2 base camp, different treks on glaciers and various ascents, the lounge rang with different languages and accents as people filled up the waiting area. The announcements, though, were in Urdu and English. I remember gratefully sinking into a seat close to the window, and putting down my backpack, my sleeping bag and my camera and resting my shoulders. I was about to pull out my notebook when I heard some words of Spanish. It was the couple sitting behind me. In the past month I’d met Italian climbers, hung out with a Japanese film crew, chatted with American trekkers, breakfasted with French tourists, got to know a wonderful German woman. And here now was a couple speaking Spanish, a language I know and love! My life in so many ways was more cosmopolitan in a remote village in the north of Pakistan than it could ever be in the urban sprawl of Lahore. I made full use of it: I spent the next half hour conversing with the young couple from Barcelona who were returning from an expedition to the K2 base camp. Our flight was delayed but not canceled, and there were no fights at the airport.