Jul 23, 2010 - published work, travel    43 Comments

The perils of traveling by yourself

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If you happen to be a single Pakistani woman traveling on your own, chances are you will get asked questions by fellow travelers, random strangers and at times by the flight attendants that may vary from harmless chit chat to something that would rival a Spanish inquisition.

Once I sat next to a guy with the biggest cowboy hat I have ever seen. He started his inquisition with a Namaste, assuming I am an Indian. Such cultural sensitivity from a cowboy was endearing so I smiled and said hello. If I had known that it would unleash a torrent of questions, I would have stayed quiet.

He asked me what part of India I am from and when I told him that I am actually a Pakistani, he was shocked. His first question was, “You are not wearing a veil, and won’t you be persecuted for not wearing one?”

When I tried explaining that Pakistan is a jumble of contrasts and while in some parts of the country, it is but mandatory to cover yourself from top to bottom, I am spared from that in Karachi but that wasn’t enough and he jumped onto the next question. He asked me if I was traveling for the first time, (It was a Manila to Bangkok flight) and when I told him that I have traveled before, he came to the conclusion that I must have an extra ordinarily liberal father. He then asked me what is it that my dad does for a living. When I told him that he works for a bank, he could not believe it. Apparently my fellow Texan traveler thought my father had to be a doctor to allow me to wander off and that bankers cannot be liberal, at least they are not in America.

On a Dubai – London flight, I had the misfortune of sitting next to a sardarni Aunty. Before I could actually buckle up, she fired the first one, “you are traveling alone?”. To my affirmative answer, she asked me why. I stopped trying to find the seat belt (I later found out that she was sitting on my seat belt) and said, “Because I am going back to college.”

The Aunty was more persistent and asked me again, “but why?” and I decided not to answer that one. Barely two minutes had passed and she got restless again. She asked me if I am married or not. I thought this would be a good opportunity to ask her to let go of my seat belt so I replied, “No, I am not married and would you care to get up a little so that I can retrieve my seat belt.” She got up, not because I asked her to, but because she was shocked that I was an unaccompanied girl, studying abroad who is not even married.

She then asked me with expressions bordering on pity, “You are all by yourself, no friends either.” When I told her that there is absolutely no one I know who is traveling with me she said, “But I am sure someone will pick you up at the airport?” Although no one was coming to pick me up, I said yes, there would be someone who is going to pick me up. I thought that was the end of the conversation, but aunty had other ideas. She pushed her elbow in my ribs and asked me with a wink, “so who is coming to pick you up, a boyfriend or a gora boyfriend?”

Once, I got asked the same set of questions by an aunty from Faisalabad, who then lectured me on the perils of traveling alone and why I should always drag a mehram with me to wherever I go. When I pointed out that I was traveling for work and it would be impossible for me to take anyone with me, she gave me a disapproving look and said, “That is why I am against girls who work. It disrupts the whole system.”

And so the cycle of questions goes on; there can be the standard ‘you are traveling alone? Why? Where are you off to and why are you single – are you even allowed to stay single in Pakistan? What is your caste, where do you work, how much do you earn, and are you allowed to vote?

These type of questions or variations of them are often thrown off one after another but they are each time asked with different expressions and in different tones and accompanied by different gestures, depending up on who is asking them. Is it too much to ask to be left alone by the world and hope to travel in peace for sanity’s sake?

Originally published in Dawn.com
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43 Comments

  • Great post Tazeen. I’ve always found that some of the most rigid patriarchs in Pakistan are women.

  • Dawn will take ages to approve comment so I’m posting it here:

    Tazeen: I’ve traveled alone as well many times but luckily no one has ever asked me such intrusive questions.

    I’ve conveniently excluded the FIA ladies at the (Peshawar) airport who grope here and there and invariably ask why are you traveling alone! 🙂

    It was as usual a wonderful and hilarious blog. Keep writing!

  • Don’t you enjoy the attention? Surely it’s given you something to write about.

  • Ahsan and Ayesha,

    Thanks 🙂
    Writing about my travel travails is something in my stock, when I cant think of anything to write about, I write about that

    here are a couple of old links

    http://tazeen-tazeen.blogspot.com/2007/05/romance-at-airports.html

    http://tazeen-tazeen.blogspot.com/2008/08/flight-pains-airport-blues.html

    Vijay,

    I also happen to write about police and politicians but that does not mean that I would enjoy attention from either.

  • It is ironical that most of your readers are Indians and then also you love to make fun of them.

  • @Anonymous 24 July 2010 02:42
    Why? Do you happen to be the Sardarni Aunty’s son (or daughter)?

    BTW, if it is any consolation to you there is no shortage of replicas of this Sardani Aunty in Pakistan. And we readily recognize the character amongst us. So don’t worry – it’s not only you.

  • Came across your blog recently and I really like your style of writing. The points you make and the issues you raise are also interesting and relevant. Keep up the good work!

  • It used to be the same way in India a couple of decades ago …. when I would be traveling alone. I can empathize. The goras of course … LOL, they think we should all be with ghungats and veils so that their own image of free liberal west is preserved. Our side of the world is a crazy mixture of contrasts

  • i once had the misfortune of connecting through jeddah. burqa aunty from multan sitting next to me asked me why i didn’t cover my head and told me i should at least cover it with a RUMAAL.

  • Pakistani aunties: the authors of their own misfortune, since 1947

    We have such gems like Samina Khawar Hayat

  • Tazeen,

    I am even more amused to note the type of questions fairer sex gets asked. With us males from the point we reveal our identity i.e. being Pakistani, the questions always turn political; why are there so many extremists in your country etc etc. That having spent most of our lives in colleges and universities, we remain equally alien to that clad is never a satisfactory answer. Pretending to be sleeping with resting ones head on the back of the seat front has sometimes turned out to be useful but then those questions are always never ending…

    On a lighter note, at least those aunties were trying/hoping to fix you with someone…

  • Aunty might have a son you know!

    And that Texan might have the hots for Indian/Pakistani girls!

    And you disappointed both of them 😛

  • Having left home at 17 to study, I can totally relate to this. However, most of these “inquisitions” and “friendly advice” about how “girls should be” generally came on the flights from UAE to Pakistan.
    However, on the flights to north america either directly from pak or from Europe, I’ve had aunties scrutinizing me for “rishtas”.
    Aunties will be aunties, is my 2 cents.

    (as for the Pakistan image in western eyes, unfortunately the image is that the laws and the society is exactly the same as either Saudi Arabia or neighboring Iran. I tell them, if you think you know Pakistan, think again.)

  • AHAHAHAHAHA!

    Taz baby, you made my day *smooch*. i love you.

    i’m still reeling from the convo i had yesterday with a paki taxi-driver lady – who picked me up from the airport and grilled me all the way home.

    she had her first child at 15, had had 7 abortions, 10 children, was 54 yrs old and driving a cab. her husband took a second wife after 30 yrs of marriage.

    in spite of the above, she said: “you girls today are too picky. my husband beat me all my life, but see, i lived with it and made the marriage work…”

    your post gave me strength.

  • is it really that annoying? whenever i’ve travelled alone its pretty boring, because no one seems to have a little time to spare to have a brief meaningful conversation with anyone.

  • All those people who think I should thank my lucky star that people want to talk to me or those who think that headphones would work have never traveled inside Pakistan.

    Here is an example why

    http://tazeen-tazeen.blogspot.com/2008/05/flight-from-hell.html

  • hehehe interesting…but i have traveled alone a number of times in fact right after my olevels..thankgod i wasnt asked any questions at all !! i hope i wont be interrogated in the future though ur post has given me ideas 😉

  • I can relate to this. My dad is one of those people who think women should be as independent as men and he always encourages me to go and see the world.

    Once, I was coming back from HK to Islamabad and there was this Pakistani couple especially the guy who wouldn’t stop staring at me. In the end, I was so irritated that I turned and asked him if he is cross-eyed or something. The guy looked a little embarrassed but his wife quickly came to his defense and told me (really bitchily) that girls like me are the kind why men stare. I was so shocked. I mean all I was doing was minding my own business!

  • lol. i loved this post. it could’ve been me.
    i travel alone often…work and personally.

    while ive never encountered evil aunties, i do get polite questions…and i get hit on because i’m guessing the fact that i travel alone means i am a ‘loose gul!

    i come from an insane family that thinks i should go nuts traveling and experiencing new things because God knows what kind of life will be after i marry some nincompoop. lol.

  • out of the ones mentioned, i like the second aunty the best. “boy friend or a gora boyfriend?” good one.

    is khizra marrying a nincompoop?

  • haha. No Sami. Since no one’s good enough for me (according to the fam) anyone i marry will be a nincompoop.
    😛

    sad life!

  • Amna,

    a quick kick in the shins was in order, seriously.

    Khizra

    Getting hit on is but natural and one can live with that, my tragedy is that I am born with an aunty magnet, esp at airports. All the aunties, aunty types and soon to be aunties gather around me asking beta yeh kar do woh bata do, paani kahan hai, washroom kis taraf hai, mera form bhar do, chashma bhool ayee and the list goes on. Its not just Indian and Pakistani aunties, I have been persecuted by Bengali aunties and I dont speak a word of Bangla.

    Sami,

    Khizra is a realist who refused to live in denial.

  • whatever khizra is, she has a job on which she can go to LA just like that. i once had that job and i left it? wtf was i thinking?
    and my in laws know bengali… amaar baangla tumhaar baangla sonaar baangla sonaar baangla. i might be able to help.

  • Sami,

    I once had such a job, there was so much travel I had run out of pages on the passport after 2 and half years, then I went crazy and resigned. I regret it to this day.

    You are married to a Bengali woman? Cross Border romance? Spill the beans?

  • Tazeen, the poor aunties cannot fathom your independence; they never had any. Like a kid would look up to someone wondering ‘can I be like this’, the aunties must be wondering ‘could I have been like this’. For them your life is a fantasy they cannot live. Hence those ‘innocent’ questions. But can’t say ‘leave them alone’; aren’t they are the ones chasing you. 🙂

    @Anonymous, firstly there is hardly anything offensive to Indians in this post. If anything, I appreciate Tazeen finding cultural sensitivity in a ‘Namaste’; one could as well have got offended. Secondly, I struggle to find anything intentionally anti-India in any of her posts. Lastly, when one expresses one’s viewpoint, is it necessary to try and please a constituency? Surprised why you didn’t ask her why she made fun of Pakistanis in spite of being one, or why she made fun of the British or any other nationality for that matter?

    I don’t wish to take too much space here, but there is an interesting incident in this context that I cannot hold back. There was a restaurant in Paris I used to eat often, run by a ‘bhai jaan’ from Lahore. On a Ramzan day I went to his restaurant to wish him on Id. Being an Indian, for me it wasn’t unusual to wish my Muslim friends on Id, with 3 hugs. For him, it was a big gesture. He made sure he hosted my dinner, though dinner wasn’t the purpose I visited him. He kept smiling all the while, and I realised 30 minutes later what the smile was about. He had managed to recall a Hindu festival, and rushed to me while I was eating, to wish me ‘Aapko bhi Happy Diwali’. I haven’t ever had a more heartful wish on a festive day; it didn’t matter that it wasn’t Diwali that day.

  • lol.that is very true..

    every time I have wished a person from Pakistan an eid mubarak, i have gotten a happy diwali back..no matter if diwali was months away.

    but i guess it is the thought that counts..

  • i do travel a lot and my passport fills quickly but no LA.
    ah… bengali wife of a pathan man… the downsides of INTERNET :$

  • yes, some just cannot accept seeing such freedom from a girl.
    ahh. i wish i had parents as open minded as urs 😛

  • Tazeen I feel bad for some of these people. I am sure some of them have never seen independent women and the curiosity and horror are genuine. Imagine lives like that 🙁

  • Working girls disrupt the whole system? I’d like to pummel that aunty into submission. Seriously!

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  • Spending most of the time sleeping (or pretending to do so) and holding a book close to your nose for the rest of the time helps.

    Doesn’t stop altogether but might get reduced considerably.

  • My Dutch friend asked me if Stoning was a common punishment in India, I said Yes. There were other remarks about India, people, driving and so on, most of the time I say Yes. Some times it is better not to explain. But he is a good friend.

  • Gosh Tazeen. Pretty sad to hear of your travails. You should have told that sardarni that you fancy women and that its your “girl”friend that is waiting to pick you up at the airport. That would have had her gasping in horror but would have shut her bloody mouth.

  • “It disrupts the whole system” Damn Oh God when will these ppl understand this. I mean its about time we stop giving ourselves a lil too much credit for our beliefs and be realistic about the whole situation. As much as we try to hide it, the fact is the women in pakistan are after all (exceptions aside) considered inferior in one way or the other. Sad to see that other women actually think like that. I am sure a lot of blame goes to the generation before that for instilling such a belief system in their heads. Plus travelling “AUNTIES” are nosy for God knows what reasons. I was once going to karachi on the plane and had to sit with an aunti, who first lied about her seat number. She wanted an aisle seat which was mine and she kept on insisting that I should get up since it is her seat. When i politely (an repeatedly) told her that my ticket says the exact seat number i am sitting on then her rebuttle came. “OH come on can’t u see and old lady and give her the seat out of respect”. I am like sure i will if you ask for it respectfully rather than lying about it. She sat next to me muttering god knows what. Then the whole “are you single” “where are you going” “why are you going” charade started. *sigh* I wonder what goes through such people’s head.

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