Let’s Hear It For the Girls! Pandemic Series: South Asia/Pakistan
Cycling down the beautiful streets of Islamabad’s tree lined boulevards this morning; I felt a surge of exhilaration from the freedom, fresh air and easy movement across the city’s wide-grid roads here. As a Pakistani woman, feeling a sense of freedom in this oppressive society is an unusual thing by all measures, since freedom on most variables is not a mainstream claim for us women in this country.
However, as I breezed through cycling from F8-3 through to F8-1, passing the unusual sight of the family of zebras in the middle of the city; my spirit is soaring. Small joys come from seeing people at the street level; being grounded by the spring smells coming from the distinct gardens and my movement on earth; being reconciled to Islamabad’s atmosphere, soft rain, trees and the clarity from the thunderstorm which people who live here appreciate intimately. The pleasure also comes from transitioning from my elitist exclusive space of a big home, sheltering myself from any ugly vagaries in my vehicle, to cycling and becoming mainstream with everything and everyone I encounter during my ride. However, this joy was that change, and more.
Passing by the different houses influenced by different eras that one sees in Islamabad, making eye contact with guards and passersby, even cycling across the mosque and the prayer mat seller, I didn’t feel threatened at all. In fact, I felt that in the typical male-dominated spaces we exist in, the men who saw me appreciated me cycling in this weather and understood the desire for it. As far as they were concerned, it just so happened that I was a woman.
We are not living in ordinary times and therefore, everything we have ‘known’ or were conditioned to believe in, all the existing rules and structures, are dissolving in the pandemic as the shock of our new reality shakes our fundamentals. Therefore, as I cycle through the three city blocks, I feel a sense of the new; a sense of possibilities. A sense that I could carve my own space right now and most importantly, a sense that this society may be ready to be reconditioned; to adapt to new rules; to have a fresh dialogue.
Trust me, I know the privileged bubble I live in. All the F-8 sectors in Islamabad, are exactly that – bubbles in which as men or women, we escape the gritty realities of our country and are coddled by the luxuries we enjoy: the Marghalla Hills appear preserved by a civic minded society; an air of civility exists; we accept the arrogant lack of humour, bypassing Rangers and traffic police indicating that we are special in a similar way that the special security patrolling and responding to residents of Beverly Hills in the United States.
So, if we can dream a little, breathe a little, think a little broader in our space in Islamabad, let me say this girls: now is the time to claim our public space! Let’s undo our conditioning of enabling men in our society to dominate it; we are also perpetuating systems by remaining inconspicuous. Now is the time to seize the movement of hope; to leverage the upheaval and seek a little reprieve from constant reminders that women in Pakistan are ranked 123rd out of 126 on the gender index in the world. Lets take a break from these constant reminders that our repressive system makes women in our country only better off than a handful of countries in the world, such as Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
Yes, I’m feeling a little utopia today. Maybe we are safe? Maybe we haven’t taken enough risks? Maybe, this is our time to claim more? Maybe its time to also show our compassion and understanding towards men, and acknowledge that in this country, they suffer too; and perhaps enable them to understand that by denying us, they sacrifice so much of their own well-being?
So join me in my euphoria! Take your cycle out and ride; take your car and drive; walk through previously sacred spaces reserved for men; touch the grass with your feet; go to the pan shop and get your pan yourself instead of sending your driver; stand outside your car and eat the paratha roll with your girlfriends instead of sitting in the car; have chai at the dhaba; open a food truck exclusively for girls; the possibilities are infinite. Let’s show more of ourselves in public and maybe our men, society and country will begin thinking more of us, in our public spaces. What is there to fear, when we are living through a pandemic and the “as is” that we know is failing?
Lets claim, that public space in Pakistan, is our space too. Here’s me claiming mine.
Tag me in your #myspaceclaim pictures and send me your stories at @khan_shamza on twitter or Shamza Khan on instagram.