Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary

Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – A Pakistan Diary

A Space of Their Own

On January 31, 2012, President Barack Obama acknowledged for the first time that the CIA uses drones to kill militants ?who are on a list of active terrorists? in Pakistan. This image of Pakistan?a haven for the sinister, where remote-controlled warplanes surveying a cave-dotted landscape wipe out evil with neat, precise explosions?is one familiar to Americans and other outsiders, especially after U.S. commandos killed Osama Bin Laden and others at a walled compound deep inside the country. This militaristic picture of Pakistan is not simply monolithic but also exclusively male.

It is this last point, which like the drone war in Pakistan remains largely unacknowledged, that I will dissect in a series of portraits of Pakistani women at Dissent. If war journalism in the martial decade following 9/11 has often assumed easy dualities of good and evil, liberation and oppression, this magnified focus on ordinary women beyond the view of public life seeks to reveal the middling grays and browns of Pakistan that claim almost no portion of the American imagination. If the broad strokes of collateral damage and aid disbursements have constructed Pakistan on the scale of security and strategy, these explore the unseen dimensions of Pakistani hearth and home.

THE FAULT lines that divide Pakistan are visible before you even get there. The flight to Karachi, where I was born and raised, from Abu Dhabi International Airport leaves from a gate in the basement. Here I found a precise miniature of the battles within Pakistan, and also of the acute paranoia with which Pakistanis perceive their treatment by the rest of the world.

On this Monday evening the flight was late, an uncommon occurrence rendered more annoying by the fact that no updates about the delayed flight appeared on the monitors that dotted the terminal. This led the Pakistan-bound travelers to weave in circles around the terminal begging the store clerks in desolate duty-free shops for flight information.

After almost three hours past the scheduled departure time, everyone heading to Karachi now seemed to have ended up back at the right gate. The women, especially those like myself who were traveling alone, quickly formed a gaggle at the center of a row of gray plastic chairs. Women in black rhinestone?encrusted burkas, with only their faces visible, sat next to returning students in skinny jeans and boots and middle-aged women wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, all with bursting roller bags and zippered duffels strewn around their legs. This sort of separation happens automatically and almost imperceptibly in public spaces in Pakistan when modern circumstances thrust men and women into ambiguous, unsegregated proximity, the men maintaining a safe distance from the area women section off for themselves.

We were not yet in Pakistan, where public space is a battleground for ideology, but a skirmish had already begun. Adjacent to the women were a group of men that refused to follow the unspoken dictate to leave the women alone. There were eight or ten of them, with black beards, long white tunics and trousers, green turbans atop their heads, and prayer beads and bedrolls in their hands. They sat immediately next to the women, legs and limbs splayed, in deliberate obstruction of the side of the aisle easiest to exit.

It was not my first encounter with this group of vigilantes. Upstairs in the food court, the only place where the promised free internet access worked, I had parked myself at a table for four with my bags and laptop. A short while later I was joined by another woman bound for Mumbai who also lacked information about her flight. We chatted and logged on, united by the camaraderie of the travel wronged. Her flight ended up leaving before mine, so I remained behind by myself, immersed in email and the details of my life back in the United States.

Then the men arrived, three beards grazing trays laden with food, their eyes scanning tables. At the table for six immediately next to mine sat two Spanish women who had just begun making gestures of departure. The men ignored them, choosing instead to stand in line directly before me. Without a single glance in my direction, any gesture of apology or courtesy or asking permission, two of them set their trays down before the chairs facing mine. The third reached around for the chair next to me and dragged it to the other side of the table. Three bearded men with three trays laden with beef curry sat down in the space for two in front of me, while four chairs immediately next to me sat empty.

The Spanish women looked alarmed and confused, but the message these men were sending was not for them. They were proving a point to me, the visibly Pakistani Muslim woman, without a burka or a headscarf or a man to shoo them off, and so without the right to be in a public space. It was too polluting to sit next to me?that could be interpreted as interest, even an impermissible flirtation. Their seating made it obvious that the space was taken from me and not being shared. They were not leering, indulging in voyeuristic thrills like the men who harass women on the streets of Cairo or Karachi or New Delhi. This was an ideological statement.

Moments like these, of varying intensity and repulsiveness, happen in cities across Pakistan: from vegetable sellers who sell rotten tomatoes to women who venture to market without men, to men who spit on lone women drivers at crowded traffic lights, to those who threaten uncovered women with acid attacks at bus stops. The message is always delivered in a public and congested context. I wondered how long could I stare down three men in that awkward configuration to prove a point, without risking missing my flight.

Downstairs with the women an hour later, the topic turned to the state of Pakistan. Things were going badly, everyone agreed, from the Pakistani student in her NYU sweatshirt to the housewife returning for her niece?s wedding. They lamented the hour and the delay, the missing flight information, and the absent staff, ultimately chalking it up to the fact that everyone, even the Arab airline, hated Pakistanis. All the flights to India had already left, they nodded. One particularly irked lady in a moss-green headscarf went further: it was only the flight to Karachi that was delayed, not the one to Islamabad, transporting white people. The conversation turned to the prayers missed, and the abbreviated ones that can be said during travel. A woman in a red coat dominated this conversation, informing us all that special prayers for travel were permitted only for a certain length of time, and for certain destinations. Everyone nodded, and some dutifully began to pray.

The bearded men glared and stared, their legs still intruding in the aisle, untouched by the conversations about prayer and piety from these wayward women traveling without men. The women kept chatting, moving on to a debate about the merits of a nearby billboard featuring Jennifer Lopez. They resolutely, intentionally ignored the men, weaving a path all the long way across the other end of the aisle if they needed to leave the area.

I ARRIVED in Karachi?s Jinnah International Airport early Tuesday morning, hours before President Obama?s statement about the U.S. drone program and a week after a deadly drone strike in the north felled another alleged slew of terrorist leaders. This dark slice of night is almost always a busy one in at the airport, the largest in the country, where loads of migrant laborers from the Gulf and elsewhere peel into and out of international flights, clutching bags and sporting smiles and the prized visas that allow them to work abroad. The women, whether they come to greet or bid adieu, wait in the sidelines, part-time wives and daughters and mothers of the global labor force. There are doctors and dentists and software engineers, recently engaged awaiting much-Skyped fianc├ęs, a spouse separated by the vagaries of suspicious Western visa regimes, a portly wife in a flapping burka awaiting the man she had married ten years ago and toting the seven children he has left behind on his seven visits, the eldest boy now leading the family through the crowds of men. You cannot enter the airport in Karachi if you do not have a boarding pass, so everyone waits outside.

The crowds at the airport are particularly thick because it is days before the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, a national holiday celebrated on the 12th of Rabi-ul-Awwal on the Islamic calendar. The mosques in the city, sometimes more than one on a single city block, are festooned with lights on their domed outsides. The inside, to me and to almost all the women at the airport, rich or poor or thin or fat or veiled or unveiled, is a mystery. Women do not go inside mosques in Pakistan; they pray at home.

Read the second post: The Birthday of the Prophet

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan?s largest English newspaper, she is an attorney and human rights activist whose work or views have been featured in the New York Times, BBC, NPR, Guernica, Dissent and Al Jazeera English. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

Girls at a school in Karachi (UN Photo, via Flickr creative commons)