As the sun set over the white-tipped mountains and the first stars began to twinkle in the sky, we settled down by a campfire for dinner. We had spent the day hiking from Passu to Khurramabad, up to a point from where we could see three glaciers across the river. Exhausted but exhilarated with our day’s activity, we dug into our piping hot meal of chicken karrahi and white rice. For a while now, I had wanted to spend some days on my own in the Northern Areas. This trip materialised last October, when I arranged this camping expedition with two guides — as solo as a woman can get in Pakistan.
The guides were young university students from Passu: Shanu, short for Zeeshan, and Hussain. As we ate dinner, we started chatting. The younger one was worried about his grades, and the older one was worried about landing a job. The conversation turned to politics, and they expressed their frustration at our leaders’ lack of accountability. As I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I reflected on how few places there were in Pakistan where I could have a conversation with two completely unfamiliar men. Interestingly enough, it took being isolated in the mountains, with no one around for miles, to make this happen.
When I recounted the story to an ‘auntie,’ she was aghast. “You camped alone with two anjaan larrkay [unfamiliar boys]?” She inevitably brought up the Lahore-Sialkot motorway rape incident.
Did it cross my mind that unspeakable violence could have been inflicted upon me, as I was alone with boys I had never met before? Yes. But did I want to assume the worst of Pakistani men as I travelled around?
Women travelling without male companions in Pakistan obviously have to consider the issue of safety. But how much of the wariness they feel about unknown men is based on gender and how much on class perceptions?
Previously, I had spent four weeks travelling Gilgit Baltistan, Hunza, Nathia Gali and Chitral, mostly with girls. There had been several encounters with anjaan larrkay.
My friend and I were touring a graveyard in Kalash, when a group of men from Swat had greeted us. The first thing they established was that they were educated. “Listen to me!” one man had said abruptly, which to me sounded crass and unnecessarily loud. He asked why my friend was in a bad mood.
This had set her off. Later on, she fumed about how men shouldn’t be telling women to smile. And how she got angry when she saw groups of men such as this one — and where were their wives? Why had they left them behind?
Later, I wondered if we would have reacted like this if a group of men had approached us in Europe. After all, weren’t they just trying to be friendly? Europeans can also be patriarchal, but we reserve a special kind of anger for Pakistani men.
There had been more such exchanges. A Punjabi duo who insisted we join them for dinner in Chitral, some friendly hikers who thought we needed help hiking up Mushkpuri, an old man who tried to spark a conversation around a bonfire in Karimabad.
These interactions were coloured by the implicit social perception that unknown men, especially those from a lower income class, are inherently dangerous and women should be protected from them.
Safety ostensibly is a reason for women not to go outside. Like any traveller, I wanted to experience bazaars, parks, dhaabas (roadside restaurants) and similar public spaces dominated by men. As a woman, I could not enter these spaces without fundamentally changing the dynamics of these spaces. As soon as a woman enters, men behave differently, turning to ogle, elbowing their friends mischievously, or going the other extreme and becoming inordinately formal.
My friend and I walked through the Chitral bazaar, the only women in sight, standing out like sore thumbs in possibly one of the most conservative areas of Pakistan. We marched past hundreds of men. Some stared. Some didn’t. One man heckled “Oh my god!” as we walked by. My friend inhaled sharply, clenched her fists, and strode on faster.
I too felt a fleeting moment of indignation. As a teenager, I would have been scared, made myself smaller. But since I had only recently moved back to Pakistan, perhaps I had something to prove to myself. I chose to push away the fear. I did not let him fluster me.
Later on, we covered our heads and entered the Chitral mosque. We searched for the women’s prayer area, and realised there was none. The worshippers eyed us suspiciously, but no one said a single word. The stares made it clear to us that we should have stayed home or dressed more traditionally. But I wanted to see the famous sites, even if it meant pushing the boundaries, even if it meant making everyone, including myself, uncomfortable.
Hanif, our guide in Chitral and Kalash, started off reserved and polite. Keeping his distance, lowering his gaze, he showed us around with hesitant arm gestures and a sheepish smile. As we passed a poster for a political party, he quietly swore them to a nasty fate. I laughingly told him I agreed, and almost immediately he smiled, relaxed and began to unwind.
As we started sharing our thoughts, he exuded manic energy, sharing his hot political takes, his fingers now openly rolling or smoking joints. “This is our culture!” he declared as he waved a piece of hash around, sharing the story of how it was once confiscated by Islamabad police. A worldly man who had lived in all corners of Pakistan, it took all of our energy to keep up with him.
In fact, we were sitting in a Kalashi wooden house, eating pulao and walnut bread, with Kalash wine offered on the table, when Hanif informed us that Biden had won the elections, and proceeded to voice his colourful opinions on Trump. Here we were, two women alone with a strange man.
As a woman in Pakistan, should I treat every man with suspicion? There is the entirely rational fear of men, of course. But how much of the wariness when we see an anjaan larrka (unfamiliar boy) is gender and how much of it is class? The wariness is undoubtedly exacerbated by the dearth of spaces where one can socialise with anjaan larrkay in Pakistan.
I hope we can build up more spaces that allow the kind of interactions I experienced, if only for a brief moment in the Northern Areas.
The writer is based in Lahore and works in tech. She tweets @hannia_zia
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 4th, 2021