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