Maliha Masood

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Peshawar is perhaps one of the few cities in Pakistan that can make even a Pakistani feel like a foreigner. To most liberal urbanites, the mere mention of the city immediately conjures images of Pashtun speaking, male-dominated public spheres, a conservative society bordering on the ultra-religious with traditional tribal values that enslave women.

Definitely no place for an uninitiated female to be traveling on her own, more so if she is unfamiliar with Pushto, the local language and newly arrived in the country after 20 years to work at an international non-governmental organization in Islamabad for a summer internship and rediscover a homeland that seemed beguilingly foreign and familiar.

I was issued strict warnings in Islamabad about the perils of going to Peshawar alone. It was mid-June 2004 and the ruling religious right party coalition and its mullahs had scored a victory by passing the Sharia bill, calling for rigorous, allegedly Islamic legal standards imposed on society. While a few enraged youths were tearing down billboards advertising women and their adornments (while ignoring similar images of men), I believed these were mostly isolated incidents that were heavily exaggerated by both the local and foreign press as standard practice. Yet, the passage of the Sharia bill and the rampage left many with a growing sense of fear and mistrust of the North West Frontier Province.

“You are only asking for trouble if you go there at this time,” asserted my friend Nasir with his typical know-it-all attitude.

The Call of the Open Road

It was easy to be discouraged when it came to traveling alone in Pakistan as a woman. Though the country had developed an extensive network of buses and public transport to get around to virtually any town on the map, it was a system reserved primarily for men. Female travelers require a male companion for “protection”; going without an appropriate chaperone was considered virtually impossible, an assumption I found extremely difficult to swallow.

The fact that I was neither a complete foreigner nor 100 percent local made matters more complicated. I couldn’t get away with breaching cultural protocols against solo travel that don’t seem to apply to the odd Western tourist who is not supposed to know anything about such things. I did not want to be bound by those same protocols, however, and lose my cherished independence.

The prevailing local reaction by to my seemingly abnormal desire to travel was: “Sorry but this is Pakistan; you cannot wander around alone here. It simply isn’t done.” For the first time in my life, I gave up and resigned myself to forgo the spirit of adventure and discovery integral to my travels–at least in Pakistan.

Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it made no sense to me that I was deprived of the right to see my native country just because of my gender.

I came to believe that as long as I exercised common sense, dressed appropriately and held on to my faith, I would be fine. My old self-confidence rushed back. It impelled me to follow my heart and find out for myself what it was really like to travel alone in Pakistan as a woman, even to places allegedly deemed as “dangerous.” No doubt, I was about to take a calculated risk, but the call of the open road was blaring like a fog horn.

Listening to the Foghorn of Adventure

Much to my surprise, women in Peshawar were not covered from head to toe or even wearing the face veil or niqab as I had commonly seen in Islamabad. They simply wore lightweight pastel colored chadors or shawls draped around their heads and upper bodies. I had definitely gone overboard donning a tight maroon head scarf and a heavy beige shawl on a sweltering 45 Celcius- (113 degree Fahrenheit-) degree day. My thin cotton shalwar kameez was drenched in sweat and I had to wear my extra large shawl toga-style to avoid tripping over its ends.

Despite the cumbersome layers of clothing, the maddening heat and the complete foreignness of my surroundings, a surge of excitement filled my heart as I started wandering by myself in the old city, camera hidden under the voluminous folds of my garments.

It was back. That familiar sense of adventure had definitely resurfaced with vengeance. I literally skipped my way through the narrow alleys of kisakahani or the old story tellers’ bazaar of Peshawar. Being Sunday, most of the shops were closed and my presence was all the more conspicuous. The attention I received, however, was mere curiosity, not hostility, and the most refreshing aspect of it was the way people handled their natural inquisitiveness about seeing a stranger in their midst.

They would simply come up to me and ask who I was and where I came from. The camera was a dead giveaway of my tourist status. But instead of driving a wedge, it helped to break the ice and before I knew it, a small boy led me by hand to show me around the neighborhood. He instantly picked up on my fondness for rotting old houses and took me to some real gems.

“Now I show you Dilip Kumar’s house,” announced my guide, referring to the famous Indian actor who at one time had lived in Peshawar’s old havelis. I simply trotted behind, enjoying the simple friendliness so easily encountered just by virtue of being out and about.

As I followed by guide, I received subtle acknowledgements from the men I strolled by; a courteous nod or a warm salam.

Each time I passed shopkeepers sitting inside half shuttered shops, eating lunch or sharing a cup of tea with friends, they would turn their heads and look towards me with interest, slightly puzzled at my hard-to-place looks. Never once did I ever feel degraded or humiliated simply because I was a woman walking in the old bazaar. In fact, I often detected a hint of admiration and even a gleam of adventure in the male eyes that scanned my every move and gesture.

Eight hours of exploring the old city unscathed and unharmed proved to me once again that listening to the foghorn of adventure and ignoring the warnings of my stuffy urbanites pals in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi provides not only the rich treasure of new knowledge but also the opportunity to bask in the warmth of humanity living far from the centers of commerce and government.

Maliha Masood is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She is currently working on her first book about her travels to the Middle East which will be published by Cune Press in March 2005.