Men are not robots and other lessons I have learned as a young woman in Pakistan

In Pakistan, cars are more merciful than shadows and there's less danger running across populated roads than walking in public parks.
Published February 14, 2023

I’ve cancelled my return ticket from Islamabad. I’m going straight to Lahore to attend my conference and taking the first flight back home to Karachi.

This was two days after news of the F-9 rape case flooded my timeline. The first day was a mess — 10 people jumping up on every tweet saying it’s old news, “where are you even getting this info dude?”, and debating on who the perpetrators were.

Most tweets had no mention of the city, just the word F-9, as if all of us had grown up in that neighbourhood and would immediately understand. I suppose the notion is valid — so many of us did grow up hearing about Islamabad, and Monal, and the hiking trails and the park on F-9.

The curtain: it’s tattered

The curtain of pseudo-safety lies heavy on Islamabad. It is the capital and you probably don’t have to worry about getting mugged between the airport and your home (which is often the topic of discussion on Karachi forums). My first road trip to Islamabad was when I was 18. I remember my dad reassuring my mother that Islamabad was definitely safe for my 19-year-old brother to drive us around. “If he can do it in Karachi, he can do it here [Islamabad].”

This kind of pseudo-safety follows me home as well. Why don’t you go to Model Park? It’s just around the corner. My friend Ariba walks her nieces to the park near her house. Mariyam walks her nephews in her neighbourhood park. Luluwa frequents the streets around her building with ease.

A Twitter user I was talking to said F-9 represented the same feeling of pseudo-safety to her as well. Isn’t that the trigger to breaking the shoddy structure of the blanket fort we had erected around us? The wooden sticks that were propping up the fort have buckled and the blanket is suffocating us with the knowledge that areas don’t matter, cities don’t connote safety and the bad guys don’t stay away just because the street is closer to your home.

In 2021, my friends took me to Karachi’s Hill Park on a Saturday morning for a picnic. We laid out a blanket on the grass, took out some food, and enjoyed a picnic for about an hour or two.

Less than 200 metres across in the parking garage, my friend’s brother sat waiting for us in the car. This was Hill Park, it was broad daylight, we had chosen to sit near a family of five and had moved twice to get closer to other occupants when the family eventually left. All this, but we could not pretend we were safe.

The apologist

“If a woman is wearing very few clothes it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. I mean, it’s common sense.”

Imran Khan said this in an interview with HBO and thousands of men on social media shared it, as if it was the winning hand in a game of cards. Imran never retracted the statement, but clarified later on that it comes down to the ‘concept of pardah’, which is there to ‘avoid temptation of society’.

What happens when you remove the concept of agency from the actions of these men by using the word ‘temptations?’ When the dust settles, if these men lose control and agency with the flash of bare skin, why are they not locked up in a room void of temptations?

It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, what time it is or where you are. It doesn’t matter if you have a man or a woman next to you, as long as there’s enough of them against you and a weapon pointed to your head.

Mapping the city

I am an art student and one of the first assignments I did at college was about my relationship with the city. It’s a tired theme after writing essays throughout middle school about what all you love about your hometown. With age, however, came a different perspective, and so, I jumped into this assignment with an eagerness and excitement I did not foresee.

My first two field-classes were in fall 2019 and I was lucky enough to be paired with the same friend, Manahil, in both classes. We both come from middle-class families and overzealous parents, so sure, we had been to Saddar, and Clifton, and Glass Tower, but we had never been to Kharadar, Pardah Park, Quetta Hotel and Lea Market. We were privileged enough to be excited about these solo excursions — a valid excuse to go traipsing around in areas we had never stepped foot in before.

We interviewed a lot of people, befriended many of them (Manahil still gets Christmas messages from her friends in the Goan Community), ate Kachoris in Lea Market, and found laughter in unfamiliar places.

These explorations broadened our lens of Karachi, but they also led to a lot of discussions. It was fortunate that Manahil and I were good friends because we conversed candidly in the spaces we occupied.

“Let’s sit on this bench.”

“No I don’t feel very comfortable, let’s move closer to the family in the back.”

Sometimes we took other friends along, and it was interesting to see how the women around us observed spaces as compared to the men existing in that same space.

 Pardah Park: an excerpt from Our Footsteps — Image courtesy Marium Asif and Manahil Siddiqui
Pardah Park: an excerpt from Our Footsteps — Image courtesy Marium Asif and Manahil Siddiqui

Our lens on these spaces led to a small booklet we made, mapping out our visits to various parts of Karachi. At first, we illustrated the spaces how we saw them, then we started writing about our experiences, and in the end, we added bits of the dialogues and conversations that took place.

This mapping was important to us, and we wanted to make sure whoever came across it, would be able to understand what we were thinking and feeling.

How I lost my body

In Spring 2020, when I mapped the city a second time, it was about the connection between my body and the city. It started with a discussion with my instructor, who said: “It takes a while before you realise how the city steals agency from you, down to your own physical self.”

It reminded me of every conversation I’ve had with my friends, seen online, and read about, that makes harassment and our physical space being invaded an everyday thing. We know the kind of looks and comments the men on the bikes, in cars and on foot are going to throw at us when we take the corner seat in a rickshaw. We’ve all practised the look we give them in return, down to the straight lips and arched brows.

 Mapping the city and emotions: Excerpt from How I Lost My Body — Image courtesy Marium Asif
Mapping the city and emotions: Excerpt from How I Lost My Body — Image courtesy Marium Asif

After I mapped Karachi with all the major instances my body had been violated (that I could recall), it was hard to look past it and it was hard to romanticise our expeditions and explorations.

However, it did not stop me from feeling a pang of sadness when two of my friends were ‘allowed’ to visit Islamabad for a few days and I was not. Nonetheless, I was excited to hear about their adventures in the glamorised city, but the conversation took a familiar turn.

“I was in the same park and I could not stop thinking about the Noor Mukadam case. It takes one thought like that to shatter the utopia Islamabad has built — the walkable, safe-city image was just gone.

“I couldn’t help but think about Noor when I was there. Maybe she had been here in this park, maybe she had walked these streets. How far away is her home, how far away is Zahir Jaffer’s house?”

“And what about later, when you left the park?” I asked

“I mean sure, I did my best to not think about it, but then we got back to our Airbnb and I couldn’t get Usman Mirza’s face out of my head. Then we went out to dinner and all I could think about was what happened with Sarah Shahnawaz, and when my friend was coming from Lahore to Islamabad, all I could think of was the motorway incident and it just doesn’t stop does it?”

I suppose at the end of the day, you don’t need to be an art student and you don’t need to have a pen, paper or tablet to start mapping these cities with all that has hurt you or what you are afraid of.

Luluwa’s lessons

Luluwa was the first person I saw in my circle inhabiting the city fearlessly. She is an artist and her work too revolves around her experiences, but they are as removed from the city as they are based on it. She says it’s necessary to fictionalise reality sometimes, to be able to stay here. If your house is your bubble and you need to leave the house, you just need to take the bubble with you.

“Be tough or die here is what I kept repeating to myself. If I had to wait for cars or my dad to show up, I would have never left the house and I loved to walk around. But the fear doesn’t really leave you — and the hypocrisy seeps in when my body stays on high alert when the role reverses and it’s my younger sister stepping out.”

Luluwa looks ahead, and behind, and on both sides when we walk, but she also looks up. She says she’s not just looking out for safety, but also for art, and her work reflects that.

She’s taken pictures of all the beautiful balconies she’s come across in her strolls and she’s drawn her art all over it. It makes it easier, she says, to give yourself another reason to stay alert. Are you looking for someone to attack you or for something to draw? Who knows, both reasons work for her.

 Mai Karachi — Illustration by Luluwa Lokhandwala
Mai Karachi — Illustration by Luluwa Lokhandwala

But everything has limits, she says. Comfort over adventure, she repeats. She walks mostly in areas that are familiar to her, exit routes are memorised, shopkeepers know her name, and she’s walked past the roads enough times to have fictionalised characters living on II Chundrigar Road.

It’s amusing in a cynical way that at the end of the day, after walking through parks and narrow alleys, the only time I don’t feel the need to have a friend beside me is when I’m crossing the streets with cars passing by at breakneck speed.

Cars are more merciful than shadows and there’s less danger running across populated roads than walking in public parks and that’s something you learn at a very young age as a woman in Pakistan.

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