What It Feels Like to Be a Woman in Karachi

By Guest Contributor

The recent movie Zero Dark Thirty showed extremely clear visuals of Pakistan and I felt awkward sitting in a theatre in Boston watching my own country on screen. It has been two years since I have been to Pakistan. There is a longing to go back; it is as if the smell of rain, pakoras and chai beckon me to the motherland. Yet, I undergo a feeling of intense fear every time the thought of going back recurs.

Growing up in the posh areas of the dangerous city of Karachi as a girl was a bittersweet experience. On one side, I was the hip girl going to parties in the classy areas of Defence — an area in Karachi — and on the other, I was the covered, frightened girl dodging bullets as I made my way to my grandmother’s house in the dangerous outskirts of Karachi. Looking back at it now, it seemed as if I lived two entirely different lives. Under the surface of the Islamic society of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan lies a deeper more secretive society that is completely different from the side of Pakistan showed on the media. Shuffling between the two types of societies was confusing. I remember dressing up and then putting on a huge shawl on top because my mother was afraid of letting me out without it in front of the driver. I myself felt uncomfortable without it. I remember rushing back in a dress from my school play and changing into a decent shalwar kameez (Pakistani national dress) with a huge dupatta (cloth worn on top of the dress) to go for volunteer work in a remote area of Karachi. I remember the striking contrast between the environment inside my home and outside on the streets. When I stepped out of a house onto the streets, it seemed as if I had entered an entirely different world.

Today, violence is blaring in the faces of moderate Muslim Karachiites. It is still hard to imagine: how did it get so bad? It seemed while we were living our perfect lives, with our one-dish Eid parties and expensive, grand dinners, the world outside was changing and we failed to realize it. Deaths were happening in the Northwest Frontier region, there was a war going on in Swat, but Karachiites did not seem involved. Even if target killings were happening, the victims were usually some gang members or party members. It was always somewhat removed from us. Apart from the fear of not appearing modest enough in the public sphere of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there was no actual fear for a Karachiite woman of being a victim of targeted killings.

The deaths have come closer to home now. They are no longer detached from us. They are happening to people in our circle of friends — people we actually know.  The recent killing of Shahzeb Khan, a young Pakistani college student studying in the United States who was shot by sons of a feudal lord in Karachi, seems to have jolted the young generation of Karachi who now realize that it can happen to any of us. We hear an average of five targeted deaths every week in Karachi. Violence seems to be getting out of hand. In addition to the already present fear, Rahman Malik, the interior minister of Pakistan, says attacks will be carried out in Karachi during Jumaa prayers. There seems to be no end to the troubles.

I am scared. A girl was recently raped and dumped naked on the sidewalk in Delhi, India. Hundreds of sexual assault and rape cases in Karachi go unreported every month. Let’s be honest: my friends and I have all experienced some degree of assault and we are girls from the classy area of Defence. I cannot imagine what girls living in other areas of Karachi and Pakistan have to go through every day. The Taliban has started targeting specific women that they deem harmful to their beliefs and preaching. Recently six female volunteers were murdered in cold blood by the Taliban in different cities of the country. The attack on Malala Yousufzai highlights the tactics that the Taliban are now employing: the targeting of young female activists. Young women who dare to raise their voices have become a threat to the Taliban, and the only way they can keep blocking any sort of change from taking place is to eliminate these specific women.

Yes, I am scared to return. I do not know what my fate will be when I return to volunteer for an NGO in Karachi this summer. I do not know how many more assaults I will experience, or how many power outages I will have to sit through. I do not know how many bullets I will dodge and how many more men I will hate. I do know one thing though: growing up in Karachi has taught me to be stronger than titanium. Karachiites are people filled with courage and patriotism. I know deep down, there is hope for Karachi and Pakistan because its people are committed, patriotic and do not give up easily. The pride and the stories of struggle during Pakistan’s Independence in 1947 by our ancestors are too strong in our hearts to give up on Pakistan. We will not allow the world to call it a failed state. I believe in staying safe, but I also believe in fate and I know death will come when it has to come — at least I would have done my share to change the world just that little bit when it does come. As Malala truly said “No, I’m not afraid of anyone.” So I will be returning to Pakistan this summer to work with an NGO in Karachi to conduct workshops for Pakistani women’s vocational training, and to once again experience what it feels like to be a woman in Karachi.

The author notes that the opinions expressed in this article are the views of the sole writer only, and in no way represent the entire society of women from Karachi, Pakistan.

Written by RABEYA JAWAID ’16 of Karachi, Pakistan