Traveling as a woman in Pakistan

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The most obvious thing to consider as a western woman visiting a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan is how you will need to dress, in order to be culturally sensitive, to fit in, or, in the case of Iran, to not break the law.

Crossing the border from China to Pakistan I dutifully covered up and had headscarf at the ready. It was an odd experience meeting Pakistanis in China over a beer while wearing summer western clothes and socialising with the same people the next day with arms, legs and head covered. With headscarf it felt like I should talk less and acquiesce more.

As our time in Pakistan went on I acquired a couple of ‘suits’, the national dress worn by women in Pakistan, except those who go further and wear black chadors or burqas that cover all but their eyes. My suits had three parts with coordinated fabric: a long, loose fitting tunic like dress reaching to mid-calf, baggy pants and a large scarf. Buying ready made suits was tough – almost all the stores sold fabric that could be tailored at home instead.

While no woman would go out without a scarf they weren’t permanently attached to their heads, most wore them loosely, readjusting many times a day. Some women would let the scarf rest on the shoulders for periods, especially in the moderate Gojal area or relatively cosmopolitan Lahore.

I found the suits comfortable. It was like wearing pajamas, and I’m going to save some of the pants for exactly that purpose at home. But it was still frustrating to need to cover up when hiking in the Hunza mountains or weathering the humidity of Lahore. Plus, my headscarf technique was lacking. With it constantly slipping off I would tend to let it drape around my shoulders at the first sign that a local woman in my area was doing the same.

In general, though, wearing local dress was pretty easy to accept. Men wear similar clothes minus headscarf, but often plus a Muslim cap, so it didn’t feel like I was particularly singled out as a woman. One friend we met, Jamil, complimented me and confronted Joe about why he wasn’t wearing Pakistani dress too. The next day he suited up in a shalwar kameez.

More striking to me than dress – and I suspect more significant in the lives of Pakistani women – was the segregation of Pakistani society by gender. The country’s shops, restaurants, taxis and hotels are staffed by men and serve predominantly men. There are special sections of restaurants for families with women to eat. That’s even true of ice cream parlours! Throngs of men sat street side enjoying their mago-choc-chip sundaes while Joe and I were escorted upstairs and around the corner.

Men only: a typical restaurant scene in Abbottabad.
Men only: a typical restaurant scene in Abbottabad.

Women who work outside the home do so in particular sectors. Women can be teachers and doctors, but not fashion designers, for example. There were female air hostesses when we flew out of Pakistan, and one served us at KFC, but everyone else working outside the home or its fields were men. I only once saw a woman driving a car, and never a motorbike, even though these are everywhere. Instead they’d ride side saddle, with their scarf flapping in the wind, and often a couple of toddlers to cling onto.

I was often surrounded by men and only men. Traveling with my husband I will have avoided the scrutiny that a lone female would get. A woman traveling unaccompanied would be even more inconceivable than a married couple without children or not having a religion. But I was still the subject of attention. Most men would nod or smile politely after a moderate amount of staring. Others would introduce themselves and talk to me in a friendly and courteous way. Some would direct their questions to Joe. “Is she also from New Zealand” they’d say. Or slightly more irksome “can I have a picture with her?” (and then her with a friend, and another friend…)

For me the biggest downside of the separation of male and female spheres meant it was hard to meet women, and when I did it was on the introduction of their menfolk. Women also tended to be less educated which meant holding a conversation with them in English, commonly their third language, could be tough. Some of the best chats I had were with the wife who helped us in Gojal. She was sad when their arranged marriage began, for example, though she was happy now. She also talked with pride about the classes on the Koran that she runs for local children, despite not having finished high school.
Despite the particular challenges posed for women in Pakistan, I enjoyed my time there immensely and would recommend it to men and women alike.

5 thoughts on “Traveling as a woman in Pakistan

  1. I think it’s fascinating what you said about the feeling that you had while wearing the headscarf that you should talk less and acquiesce more. Did you find that continued the whole time you were in Pakistan, or did it start to feel less restrictive after time? I’m not sure it’s quite the right word for the sitiation, but did it feel intimidating at all to be the only woman among many men most of the time?

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