This is the seventh post in Rafia Zakaria?s series at Dissent, ?Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Read the previous post here.
In 1993, when I was a high school student at the Mama Parsi Girls’ Secondary School in Karachi, I wrote a letter called ?Our Camping Trip to Abbottabad.? I found it last week in a dusty corner of an old box that had escaped earlier purges of textbooks and graded tests. In it, I had been tasked with telling the principal of my school the details of a trip the girls in my class would like to take to the resort town of Abbottabad, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This was long before the town had the notoriety it does now, with the shadow of Osama Bin Laden?s demise covering its name.
?Our Camping Trip to Abbottabad? is an earnest letter that begins with what was most crucial about any trip any girl I knew had ever taken: the fact that ?permission had been sought and obtained from all the parents of the girls who wished to make the trip.? I go to the principal for an official letter that all of us girls could present when we went around to see ?the sights [sic] of national and historic importance.? A teacher?s red pen had crossed out ?historic importance? and changed it to ?sights of great natural beauty? (this was before Osama). In the last paragraph I add more details: the costs of tickets, the dates of flights (set for my birthday). I ended the letter by saying, ?Madam you cannot imagine how excited we are about this trip. It will provide us, for the very first time, a chance to be independent, do what we think is right and to make our own decisions.?
The Abbottabad trip was imaginary; I had never been on a plane or even a train, been outside Karachi or even very far from our own neighborhood. The girls from my class, Muslim girls from middle-class families like my own, could only fantasize about a class trip that involved camping, or planes, or cavorting by ourselves in the mountains.
But those last words in the letter were not made up; like millions of other Pakistani girls, I knew from our encounters with freedom what we were missing?what could be but was not or maybe not yet. The year 1993 was a tumultuous one in Pakistan, as one bout with democracy had been tried and discarded. Benazir Bhutto had been elected prime minister in 1988 and removed from office in 1990. As I was writing that essay in a high-ceilinged classroom built while the British still ruled, another government was breathing its last breath. Elections were called in early October 1993 because the people did not like who they had picked and wished to pick again. Voting, selection, choice, and independence had all arrived but perhaps without a plan.
It was this adult discomfort with freedom that I was noting in that letter, my mini manifesto that tried to resuscitate the value of dreaming even while an entire countryful of grown-ups lamented the death of their dreams. I had grown up under martial law. Sixth and seventh grade were spent celebrating the election of the first female Muslim prime minister that the country and the world had ever seen. By ninth grade she was deposed, amid the scattered disappointments of those that had expected more, for women, for the poor, for others who had dared to hope. In the tenth grade, I was still young and I was still hoping and still believing.
As I was then, many are now: there are hundreds of thousands of young Pakistani girls in Karachi schools with gates to lock them in every day, where sports must take place indoors because too many men gather to stare, where girls are writing essays about camping and mountain climbing and firefighting and living alone. They are dreaming, but not only that; they are also planning and preparing, ironing out and picturing the details of freedom even while so many around them try to deny it to women. I never did go on a camping trip to Abbottabad, but I have been to many other places, done many other things, and they will too.
Read the eighth post: A Woman Named Honor
Photo of Abbottabad in 2011 by Fraz.khalid1, via Wikimedia Commons