By Sanam Malik
January 15, 2014
An airport can be a good starting point to begin learning about the culture of any country. Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Airport is much the same.
I was motivated to write about this seemingly trivial topic because of the sheer frustration that I felt on arriving at this airport. The experience left me wildly exasperated, and what I am about to give you is a microscopic account on the matter to make you understand my ordeal.
After a 12-hour flight from Canada, as I was making my way towards the baggage collection point, I saw a string of porters looking out for potential customers. One called out to me saying:
“Madam, porter Chahiye?”
(Madam, do you need a porter?)
I declined the offer but to my amusement, a group of them formed a circle around me, asking the same question. It was not like I had declined the offer based on the porter’s appearance or approach, so I assumed it was pretty obvious that when I said ‘No’ to one, I would not let the others help me either.
I refused them all as politely as I could but as I walked on, I found to my dismay that mindless persistence was the norm among them and I continued to be hounded by one porter after another offering to take my luggage. I still maintained my cool and turned them down in as civil a manner as I could.
Waiting at the conveyor belt, I finally saw my two pieces rolled on to it. In anticipation, I stepped closer but as I did so, several gazes shifted to me. I ignored the discomfort I was experiencing and went on to lift the first piece with a normal amount of effort.
In the wake of my apparently ‘daring’ accomplishment, several porters stepped closer to me.
I felt as if I was on camera and every movement of mine was under scrutiny.
The inquisitive gazes continued as I hauled my second piece off the conveyor belt as well. Then, one of them broke the silence with yet another request to carry my luggage. I was beginning to feel harassed now and told him to go away in an agitated tone.
I noticed that his face had lost all colour as he walked away. He knew that other people had also noticed my irritation towards him and his colleagues and apparently, women are not allowed to get angry, no matter how pushy anyone is.
As I turned around to exit with my luggage, I heard them talking about me to each other and their comments were loud enough to be heard. In not so kind words, they had concluded that I was a snob.
This was my welcome to Lahore.
And this was not the first time that I have had to go through this anguish. Every time I land at Lahore airport, the same tense atmosphere prevails. I know that hiring a porter would probably save me all this undue stress but I wonder what the real problem at hand is and what its solutions (if any) might be.
To me, this senseless affair seems to be a deep-rooted cultural bias towards women’s independence. In a foreign country, you would approach a porter if you needed assistance, just like if you needed to buy milk or eggs you would go to the grocery store.
But here, this is definitely not acceptable.
I would have attributed a desperate financial condition to such behaviour had the men travelling with me experienced a similar pursuit. However, this had not been the case and it clearly had to do with me being a woman, and the conviction that I must need help in the absence of a man by my side.
I understand that many women would not want to pick up heavy baggage and I might do the same at times, but it is certainly not something set in stone. I believe that most Pakistani women do not travel alone and many use porters, which possibly reinforces the belief that women cannot be independent.
Moreover, these porters are not the only ones in our society who are devoid of exposure to an open-minded culture. Even when women go to over-crowded market places, they have to watch out for themselves. And then, of course, there are places where you would simply not go as a woman, without a man.
I find it sad that women are often not encouraged to work, pursue their dreams, or walk in public alone, even among the more educated class in Pakistan.
Although the displeasure for women’s independence is frowned upon at all levels of society, its evidence can be traced in even trivial instances such as the described baggage chase at the airport. It is such subtleties of daily life that can speak volumes about prejudices held against women in our society.
Although I wish for an immediate change in perception among our people, on a realistic front, it is not likely to take place anytime soon since the beliefs and convictions are so deep-rooted.
And so, my welcome at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Airport only serves as an unpleasant reminder of the harsh realities of women’s lives in Pakistan.
Sanam Malik is a graduate from the University of Toronto and a freelance writer.