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November 05, 2017


Recently I’ve been reading Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, which feminises the word ‘flâneur’ — a man who saunters around observing society — for the book’s title. In Flâneuse, Elkin combines her personal memoirs of walking in the cities mentioned with historical and literary investigations into the phenomenon of the female urban walker.

Elkin unearths social and cultural attitudes towards women, past and contemporary, who saunter, loiter and explore cities; she examines the life and work of writers such as Jean Rhys, George Sand, Sophie Calle and Virginia Woolf. She traces the line from women longing to venture out in the Victorian era, to the suffragettes and working women daring to reclaim public space in the Edwardian era, to 20th century women subverting conventions of domestic life in favour of freedom and independence, to students and revolutionaries standing side by side with men in street protests and battles.

Through it all, Elkin drives home the point that public space is a feminist issue, that the male gaze is best subverted when a woman becomes a flâneuse, observing instead of being observed. I find this particularly interesting when we consider the difference between biology and gender: where biology tells you what you can do with your X or Y chromosome, gender tells you what you can’t. There is no reason a woman cannot walk through the streets for no other reason than to take in life in all its dimensions. But the keepers of women in Pakistan have long decreed that the only women who do this are streetwalkers and prostitutes, and the rest of the female population must remain firmly ensconced in the home.

It’s interesting to read Flâneuse as a Pakistani woman; I related to the Victorian women trapped behind high walls and social conventions, looking out longingly at life on the streets beyond their windows and gardens. Our mothers and grandmothers were raised to believe that walking on the street was not something girls or women from ‘good families’ did and it’s hard not to be influenced by the remnants of those beliefs. But reading about the writers and artists who used the streets of London and Venice as inspiration appealed to me too, as I’ve walked in cities from Hong Kong to Copenhagen to Boston and Chicago, as a student and as a writer. Those foreign cities had their dangers, but for the most part my right to walk around was never in question.

But I don’t live in New York, London or Tokyo; I live in Karachi, not popularly known as a walking city and particularly not for women. The streets are in terrible condition. Upper-class women display their independence by driving cars on Karachi’s myriad potholed, broken roads, while middle- and working-class women must navigate on foot, negotiating non-existent sidewalks, aggressive traffic and the well-known dangers of sexual harassers on the street and at bus stops. A lone woman on foot will relate tales of men who shout sexual slurs, proposition her or expose themselves to her as she passes by, burqa or no burqa. How, then, can a woman write about the city when she has so little access to its spaces?

Because they are contested, I relish the times I get to walk in Karachi: at a public park where a 10 rupee ticket gives you access to greenery and open space and skies. Or at Clifton beach, which figures prominently in all my novels about Karachi, from Where They Dream in Blue to Slum Child to A Season for Martyrs. In Karachi, the beach represents a freedom and return to nature that we lose sight of in the urban sprawl; the characters in my novels — male and female — all feel calmness and joy at the oceanfront, meet lovers there, experience childhood pleasures of digging in the sand or riding a dune buggy rigged with disco lights and Bollywood music.

In the older parts of the city, men still dominate the streets, but one of the most walkable areas for women is Tariq Road, with its miles-long stretch of shops easily accessible by pavements. This is where I set The 786 Cybercafe with its feisty heroine Nadia, who dons a burqa to walk along Tariq Road to the cybercafe where she learns how to “get on the internet highway” as it was called in the late 1990s. Unlike Elkin’s flâneuses who loiter for the sake of loitering, Nadia has a purpose — to learn about the internet — that she hides from her family on the pretext of going to the beauty parlour under the watchful eyes of her sisters. For Nadia, walking on the streets feels transgressive, exciting and liberating, as it did for the Edwardian suffragettes and the working girls who trod the pavements of early 20th century London.

Elkin observes that walking on the street as an observer turns the tables on the male gaze: “Where once we were the objects of the gaze, as street-haunters we become observing entities, de-sexed, un-gendered.” Women journalists and writers who walk in Karachi know this dynamic well: dressed down in clothes for comfort and utility rather than to attract attention, notebook or recorder in hand, they gather strength from their purpose: to observe and report.

I’ve felt the power of this phenomenon myself. Instead of (or as well as) being stared at by men, I am the one staring at men, observing their habits: the way this one props up his feet in front of his sweet shop as he looks at his mobile phone; the way two young men lie on a charpoy, holding each other close like lovers; the crowds that gather to watch an accident or a street brawl as if it were living theatre. My gender falls away. My eyes click like the camera lenses that my Slum Child heroine Laila imagines in her eyes, capturing the sight of a drug addict crouching in a corner and shooting heroin into his veins.

Women in Pakistan may be told it’s best to spend their lives sheltered and protected, like the Brontë sisters who wrote their books while living at the parsonage and seeing very little of the world beyond. Or they may be encouraged to focus their attentions on the social conventions of life, as Jane Austen — who found inspiration from drawing rooms and dances — did. But to get at the ‘beating heart’ of the cities in which they live, and to discover the meaning of true urban independence, women might just have to put on their shoes and walk down the streets wherever and whenever they can.

The columnist is a Karachi-based writer and author of six books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017