By Shagufta Naaz
24th May, 2013
The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” — Albert Einstein
Let me confess. Over the years I’ve developed a fear of flying. It’s not the plane; it’s not even the cramped seats, the bad food or the haughty flight attendants. It’s the passengers. Mainly the people you’re stuck with in that metal tube for however long it takes to get wherever you’re going.
“Are you travelling alone?”Asks the auntie next to me. The seat she’s occupied was not hers to begin with but since she’s travelling alone as well (oh, the horror) she asked to be seated next to a lady (or ‘ladeez’ to be precise).
“Are you going to Lahore/Dubai/wherever it is that the flight is headed?” comes the next query, even though the first one received a curt nod. Inquisitive aunties in planes (and other places) are never put off by a bit of rudeness.
Tempted as I am to say “No I have a parachute stashed under my seat and plan to ditch the plane mid-flight,” I understand the obvious query is just an opening gambit. Just as a police interrogation starts with innocuous questions so does an auntie’s inquisition. Now comes the real stuff.
“So are you joining your husband there? Oh, so you’re still single? Why?” and so on...and on...and on. Annoying as they are I do understand where they are coming from. A single woman is still an anomaly in our part of the world; a single woman travelling alone, even more so. Curiosity is piqued and eyebrows are raised. One elderly lady advises me to cover my head, another offers a Wazifa to help me find a mate. In their own way, perhaps, they are trying to be kind. At least, one hopes so.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the airport staff. I have heard horror stories of Asians being harassed at airports in the USA after 9/11. Trust me; airports here have been harassing their own women for much longer.
“You are travelling to Turkey? Alone? For what purpose?” The immigration officer eyes me suspiciously as he looks over my entire bundle of passports. (Is it just me or do immigration officers want to see all your previous passports even though they just need to check the current one?) “For work.”
“Turkey doesn’t allow single women to enter. You need to go with a Mehram.”
Yes, he actually said that.
Another time the custom officer took umbrage at my luggage — or lack of it. “You just have one carry-on?” and proceeded to turn all its contents inside out, searching for God-knows-what.
Not all encounters are hostile; some are actually friendly. Almost too friendly. “Here first you must open your fast,” says the man at the baggage check-in as he hands me an Iftar box. “That’s ok I can wait.” “No, no, the flight will wait till after you have had Iftar,” beams the man with true Lahori chivalry. Unfortunately, this is not extended to the next girl in the queue who has to ask for her Iftar box. Dressed in jeans, she is met with a curt “Are you fasting?” Obviously only women clad in Shalwar-Kameez-Dupatta deserve respect – and Iftar boxes.
Then there are the male travel ‘companions’; the ones who ogle you for the entire duration of the trip, the ones who try to get your phone number and the ones who just plain creep you out.
Of course, commuting in any form or way is a hazardous occupation in our part of the world. Be it lecherous conductors, cat-calls and leers at bus stops or harassment by male drivers — for a woman, venturing out of the house is akin to stepping into the battlefield.
But this doesn’t stop women from donning their armour — be it a concealing Burqa or a cloak of dignity — and walking out with their heads held high (and arms akimbo, the better to elbow their way into crowded places). Because we know that our journey is what we make of it, no matter how many obnoxious travel companions we have to suffer on the way.