Saturday, August 3, 2013

It's Not A Place For Ladies

I was at the bank this morning to get some work done, an activity that most people in the world find perfectly normal, if a little annoying (best-case scenario). As I sat and day-dreamed until my ticket number came up, I watched the fish swim around their marble-lined pool and thought about how this was something I could not have done if I had been a woman twenty or thirty years ago in Pakistan.

I remember being a child in the late 70s, having returned to Karachi from growing up in America. One day my father told me he was going to take me with him to his bank. I was so excited about the trip to the bank, a low two-storey building with large brown glass windows and a pleasant driveway with a rockery and tropical plants, a bit of prettiness in an otherwise very dusty and somewhat barren city.

"Is Mama coming with us?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

"Why not?"

"It's not a place for ladies."

I glanced at my mother's face to see if she was upset, but she didn't seem too perturbed. Once we were in the bank, it was actually pretty boring (maybe that's why Mama didn't mind): I had to wait ages while my father talked to some man about some things I didn't understand: deposits, signatures, papers, transfers. I can't remember exactly what my father did there or who he saw, but I do remember that there were no women in the bank: not as employees and not as customers.

Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s in Pakistan, you clearly understood where women generally did not go, not because of laws that forbade them, but because of social strictures, customs, and traditions. Banks were some of those places. Government offices too. Post offices, or anywhere you had to pay your utility bills. The KMC offices, where you had to register births and deaths. Lawyer's offices, the electricity company, the telephone company, so on and so forth. "It's not a place for ladies" is the refrain I heard whenever I asked why I couldn't go to a certain public place.

In those days most of this kind of business was conducted by men for men, and the lone woman who was unfortunate enough to have to go to these public places had to cover herself up and then still bear the stares of the men gathered there, or maybe comments muttered out loud. It made going there uncomfortable to say the least, and was always considered a stressful experience best avoided if possible. If you as a woman had to go to say get a passport or an identity card, the man accompanying you - husband, father, brother, son - would also get stressed out at the responsibility of having to protect you from the brazen eyes of other men. Sometimes it was just easier to leave a woman at home. Scratch that: most times.

Things began to change as more and more women started to come out of their houses to go to work. Women began to appear in more workplaces, not just in schools or hospitals or boutiques. As they began to work, they began to avail themselves of financial services, pay bills, hold bank accounts. Public space began to open up for women. Some places began to accommodate women by making separate women's facilities, such as special lines for women or women's hours. Others employed women staff to serve women customers.  Things were beginning to change for the better.

The sight of a woman in a bank or a mobile phone office became normal in the 90s, although people still liked to snigger and suggest that women working as customer reps or hostesses or customer relations officers were little better than prostitutes. But Pakistani women braved those aspersions on their characters and kept coming into public spaces. More and more young women were going to university and taking public transportation to get to their schools and places of employment.

Today, women in Karachi are everywhere. It isn't exactly the same in the rural areas, but there, too, women are finding their feet: health officers, NGO workers, door-to-door sales representatives, all women, are finding ways to circumvent conservative social mores and earn money to feed their families. In doing so, they're contributing to Pakistan's economy, and they are brightening the fabric of Pakistani society by making their presence felt. Society becomes better when women participate in all parts of it.

It takes a long time to change mindsets though. I remember wanting to go for a walk in a park in the early 2000s. It was two o'clock in the afternoon, a hot day, not the usual time for women to go for walks in the park - they usually came out at five or six pm when the sun couldn't burn their skins. But I was annoyed about something and wanted some private time to myself outside of the house. I went to a nearby park and walked, thinking so hard about my problems that at first the shouts and laughter of a group of young men lolling on the grass didn't penetrate my mind. Then I realized that they were calling out "Two hundred rupees, three hundred rupees, how much do you think she'll charge?"

It wasn't until I got home that I realized they were calling me a prostitute. The old refrain echoed in my mind: maybe the park in the middle of broad daylight wasn't a place for ladies. It takes a long time to change a lifetime of conditioning.

Then I told myself that I wasn't a lady, I was a woman, and that the world was made for me to live in it, and I would do so with my head held high. And as a Pakistani, every inch of this land is as much my right as it is a man's.

Anybody who doesn't like the new rules of the world is most welcome to sit home. 

No comments:

Post a Comment