A feminist moves to Peshawar and nothing happens

I got a job in Peshawar and moved here from Islamabad. As a workingwoman, I’ve scaled it all across Pakistan – Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. When headhunters used to suggest a job in Peshawar though, I’d say, no way in hell. Peshawar was an hour away from the house US Special forces found Osama Bin Laden. It was the city with the finest hash and the most unlicensed weapons. It was the city with roadside bombs, almost at the front line on the war on terror.

I’d rather read about it in the paper over breakfast tea far away than have to live it.

I liked living in Islamabad where there were avenues to repair me out of the tiresome misogyny I’d face in Pakistan. Islamabad is where my favorite coffee shop sucked out of me the bitterness of living here. Close enough to Lahore, where I could hear my favorite authors at literature festivals. I was in my comfortable bubble.

Until, I said yes to Peshawar.

I dusted off my old long shirts and lose trousers to go with the segregated anti women environment I’d be in. Having started off family feuds for asking me to cover my head, I resigned that in Peshawar, I would cover my head as custom demands it. I would put my feminism aside, like a forgotten coat.

I also decided that I would talk less, smile more and defer to the judgment to the men I reported to. In short, I would do everything I campaigned for 10 years as a feminist in Pakistan to not do. I swallowed my pride, signed the contract and arrived in Peshawar.

The first thing I learned was that the headscarf was optional in the work context. In my first visit to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa secretariat, I saw women officials, some of them, walking around with an air of authority I’d not seen before even in Islamabad, with their scarfs dangling on their shoulders like an afterthought. I did the same to mine. Other women had it on their head, and more power to them, I understand that this is no symbol of oppression, provided it is a choice by women.

My first meeting with key government officials, the conversation was polite and respectful. There was an air of approachability that I was given command to regulate – turn up or down.

A few weeks later, in a stock take meeting, where I was the only woman among a few dozen men, I walked into the boardroom and took the last seat in the room, as far back as I could. I heard the men at the conference table whisper. Then the lead official gestured me to sit at the head table. I pointed to myself and gestured back. Me? He nodded and pointed to the chair next to him.

I walked up and sat at the table.

What I find fascinating was that I have picked some serious fights for my right to self-express elsewhere but I was so willing to assume I had none at all in Peshawar. Why?

I assumed the context was utterly hostile and unforgiving for the kind of woman I was.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not like I am having a women’s rights con here in Peshawar, sometimes I do feel like furniture here.

Perhaps it is the status that protects me from the extreme misogyny other women face. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police force advertised with pride last week that they blurred out women’s cleavages on trial art and billboards. So it is true that men determine what the honour code dictates and the government partakes in that judgement which is both dangerous and backward.

Peshawar is different from the bigger cities of Pakistan. Different in a good way. I am at the heart of Pushtoon culture, known for its honor code, patriarchy and rigidity and I am not exactly feeling oppressed.

In fact, the professional environment is comfortable and accommodating of my pro women values.

My barriers to my move to Peshawar were my stereotypes, my preconceived ideas and my privilege. When my privilege was checked, I started to see Peshawar for what it is – just another part of my multilayered homeland.

I have worked in other provincial governments and the harassment was endemic. It took me a while to feel whole as a person again after working there.

Pashtoon slurs, pathan jokes, a general disregard of the people of this province is endemic in Pakistan.

Sadly, without realizing it, I had type casted the people of this province without knowing them. As an avid reader of motive, this is clearly not what they are doing to me. That makes me feel terrible on both counts.

I got not just a seat at the table, I have been involved in almost everything my role demands I stretch into professionally and socially. I earned that seat at the table in Peshawar. My feminism made me earn it, yes, here too.

Peshawar is challenging me in ways that I never expected. I’d encourage others outside looking in, to check their stereotypes about Pakistan too.


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