Looking For Women In Peshawar
Looking For Women In Peshawar

Aditya Sinha on the real shortage in the tribal belt of Pakistan

Aditya Sinha went to Peshawar to cover the war for a national newspaper. The Pakistanis threw him out five weeks later. That did not surprise him as much as the fact that he never saw a woman’s face throughout his entire stay.


You don’t get to see women in Peshawar. I don’t mean that there’s no dating in Peshawar—I mean, literally, you don’t get to see women there. We are basically hunters, and we hunt with our eyes. So an extended working visit to conservative Pushtun society—the very same that spawned the Taliban—makes you wonder what exactly Mullah Omar and his ilk are up to. Are they trying to protect women—or are they trying to make their men more frenzied?


When I arrived in Pakistan in September, to cover the inevitable US retaliation (and perhaps the start of a War very long and widespread), the existence of women was a matter taken for granted. I saw them everywhere: at home and in office, outside cinemas and inside temples, in cars and on lifts, turning on the computer and turning off the microwave. There was never a need to worry—they were always there, in front of my eyes, representing the colours of experience.


But women began to turn into an abstraction—a memory, a dream, a concept—all while covering the first war of the Third Millennium, from a frontier town that has become the modern-day  Vienna or Casablanca. The first clue to this was the Lahore-Peshawar flight.


PIA runs a night-time Fokker flight to Peshawar—a low-flying contraption whose engine noise was deafening, through which you had to crawl if you wanted to take a leak, and it took twice as long as in a regular commercial aircraft to reach the loo. It was packed with men—not even a perfunctory stewardess. Some had moustaches, some were clean-shaven, some wore glasses, some were slant-eyed, some were Afghans, and one was even white. But no women.


The first few days I didn’t even notice not seeing any women. I did indeed notice women on two separate occasions the first day; and though I peered at them, out of my auto-rickshaw, I did not see them. Each time it was a group of women striding purposefully along the edge of the road, each of its members invisible under a head-to-toe burqa, their gender boldly proclaimed by its invisibility. Each looked as if under a large sheet, just dropped on top of her by someone hovering just above (perhaps that was the message), looking like a black or blue ghost.


It was much the same at Karachi University where Mohajir philosophy lecturers interrupted classes for Namaaz. The women were stiff, and I felt I was a marauding raider from a foreign land, from whom their culture and society had to be shielded and protected.


“What’s the significance of black vs blue?”


“No samjha,” Fayyaz, an assistant at the Hotel Serenity (pedestrian but not seedy), said in his toota-phoota Urdu.


The colours of the burqas, I impatiently elaborated. The women walked in groups of uniform colours, either all black or all blue. Was this a code? Did this signify tribal or clan loyalty? Did it signify differing degrees of religiosity?


“Fashion hai,” he said, handing me fresh towels. I must have looked crestfallen, for he quickly added: “Blue is the fashion among Afghan women, black among Peshawar’s.” Ah! I thought. They can even choose the colour of their veils. There was some sense to life.


I wondered what each woman under her burqa looked like. Was she the senior matron? Which were the married ones? Which were the single girls? Nothing; I couldn’t tell one ghost from the other. I didn’t even have the chance of doing a Raj Kumar in Pakeezah, when he fell in love with Meena Kumari after seeing her foot. These women were communally visible, individually invisible.


But I did not dwell on it. The first week in Peshawar I was excited about being in the middle of the biggest developing story of my lifetime, about being the only Indian in the heart of Pushtundom, and about the bombs that would soon light up the Afghan skies. I was so taken by the new place and the new people and the newness of it all that the fact I had not seen any women seemed trivial.


But soon that week passed, and I ran out of the routine stories (refugees, anxiety, etc). The tense build up to October 1, the night everyone in Pakistan thought the US retaliation would begin, ended in an anti-climax. There was no bombing, and all of Peshawar relaxed its shoulders. People even began to talk of going to northern Afghanistan to meet the Tajiks and Uzbeks. It was then that I began to notice how beautiful Mishal Hussein was.



The other BBC anchors introduced her as “Michelle”, so I thought she was half-English and half-Pakistani/Bangladeshi, like so many friends I had in London in the 1980s. She slightly cocked an eyebrow towards her lustrous hair, and her high cheekbones helped a lurking smile. She was better than a dream and I could not see enough of her. In fact, I could only see her head and shoulders, for she was doing the graveyard shift from New York for the BBC World’s morning business report. And despite her blah-blah about consumer anxiety and airline mergers, I wanted to see her again and again.


The rest of BBC came nowhere close. I checked CNN and Al Jazeera, but Mishal was unsurpassed. I did come to the conclusion about the types of women on BBC and CNN: the CNN women were particular about their make-up and hair-do but clueless about the news; the BBC women with their closely cropped hair and jagged edges, were sharp, well informed and nobody’s fool though not alluring.  Except Mishal, my belle, the houri on every Peshawari television screen…


That’s when I realized how fast I was sinking… I was getting lost in television heads. Simply because I had not seen a female face for so long.


I’d met Pakistani women before. On a 1994 trip to Lahore, a columnist with The Nation (a daily with close ties to the army) showed me around. Nadira took me to dinner and made me eat a bird whose type I forget. We also visited a trade union leader one evening, so I was surprised a few years later when I heard she had gone off and married V S Naipaul.


Five years later, I was in Karachi to gauge public reaction to General Musharraf’s coup d’etat. Tanks at the television station, an army chief trapped in thin air, the ISI chief thrown in jail… naturally I ended up at a cocktail party where development workers in tight jeans gave me the eye. Oh, heaven! I thought.


It turned out the eye I was getting was the evil one. The women turned their finely chiselled noses up and away from me; conversation-opening queries were directed to the more genial menfolk. “Lahore should be gifted to India,” one young lady said in my presence. “That way we cripple India and get rid of our filth at the same time.” It was a moment where cruelty and beauty had arrived at synergic conflux.


It was much the same at Karachi University where mohajir philosophy lecturers interrupted classes for namaaz. The women were stiff, and I felt I was a marauding raider from a foreign land, from whom their culture and society had to be shielded and protected. Nothing any man has ever done made me feel more the enemy than the icy glare of a Pakistani woman.


But in Peshawar I missed even that. I felt lonely, disconnected to some tangible yet ineffable half of reality. I felt restless, wondering whether the USA was ever going to get around to bombing Afghanistan. I felt marooned, cut off from the world of a Delhi journalist on study leave. I felt robbed, after they shifted my Mishal to the London bureau, and to program timings that did not suit me.


Everyone I met was a man. I visited Afghans—aid workers, political exiles, students, and shopkeepers—but none let their women even peek into the living room for a cursory exchange of pleasantries. The Pakistanis were quite the same, if not worse. Even home dinners were served by men. I began to wonder whether Pushtun women existed at all.


I desolately walked the streets of University Town, but even the beggars wore burqas. I descended into the old city, but only found things worse. Men were everywhere: behind bundles of plummeting Afghan currency, behind laminating machines, behind large pans of Peshawari kababs, behind signboards with garishly painted giant teeth, behind clothes-stacks, luggage-pyramids and crockery-stalls, and behind other men. It seemed that everyone in the world had a beard and wore a dirty Pathan suit.


In a way, it’s only natural that you don’t see women during a war. War is the ultimate expression of violence, and women are the centre of creation; without them, there’s no species. So you’d think when someone kills a female (physically or just spiritually) they were doing a very un-Darwinian thing. But then we are hunters, and sometimes we hunt our own.


Several days after the bombing began, I finally bumped into a woman, but she was not a Pakistani. She was French, a middle-aged correspondent with Le Croix, waiting with me for a chat with Peshawar’s best known journalist, Rahimullah Yousufzai. Another hard-boiled European (an image they deliberately cultivate?) with mousy hair and deeply creased face. We made small talk, and (I forget why) she told me that she preferred watching the BBC to CNN.


Then she mentioned how difficult it was to talk to Afghans, especially the recent refugees. “I can’t understand them,” she wailed. “People in this part of the world don’t speak rationally.”


I begged her pardon. “You know, rationality,” she explained, matter-of-factly. “If A, then B, then C, then D, and so on. They don’t think it.”


We chatted, we talked, we discussed, and we even joked.  It was the first time in ages that I was in such proximity of a woman—and having a conversation. I listened with admiration and awe to the tales of Rawa, having to put up with first the anti-soviet Mujahideen, then the Taliban.


“Even Western epistemologists now find that linearity in thought is not the same thing as rationality,” I countered, thinking that my philosophy education was finally coming of concrete use. But all that elicited was a withering look. She turned her nose up and away, leaving me to wonder whether she was a Pakistani in disguise.


It was a Sunday morning, more than a month after I reached Pakistan, that, low on self-esteem, I picked up the newspaper and saw an article about the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). It struck me like lightning. I could meet a woman, and get a good story at the same time! The male journalist’s dream combination.


But RAWA was secret, highly anti-Taliban, and on the run from the ISI. A local correspondent confidentially gave me a contact number, and the voice on the other end wanted to know whether I would like to interview an Urdu-speaking activist or an English-speaking one. Maybe the latter would be friendlier, I thought. She’ll be at your hotel room tomorrow afternoon at four, I was told.


I couldn’t get to sleep that night. Not because of the screaming US fighter jets that occasionally passed overhead—I got used to those the third night of the bombing. I tossed and turned, unable to drive out fantasies of Afghan women entering my room and taking off their burqa and revealing themselves to be bikini-clad, and holding a double bourbon (I was really thirsty into my fifth week).


But no one showed up at the appointed time. I anxiously paced the room, opened my door for a peek down the hall, left it open a crack, looked out the window, and even turned down the television. Four- thirty and still no sign, and just when my spirits began to sag, Sahar Saba showed up.


I had imagined an Afghan woman as someone tall, exotic and possessing a glorious mane. Sahar was short, and she had short hair. Her only typical Pushtun feature was her prominent nose.


We chatted, we talked, we discussed, and we even joked. It was the first time in ages that I was in such proximity of a woman—and having a conversation. I listened with admiration and awe to the tales of RAWA, having to put up with first the anti-Soviet mujahideen, then the Taliban. As far as she was concerned, a fundamentalist was a fundamentalist, whether it was Mullah Omar or Gulbuddin Hekmatayar. I marvelled at the fact that she had to dodge the ISI every minute of the day, which was why RAWA was so secretive. And occasionally I caught her glance and smile.


It would have been magical and wondrous had it not been for her escort. Did you think the Pushtuns were going to let a young single woman visit a foreigner in his room, alone? He was old and wiry, wearing a long white beard and thick lenses that magnified his stern eyes. The entire time he kept his wordless and unblinking gaze locked upon me. It was unsettling, and I could not catch Sahar’s eyes as often as I would have liked to, for every time I looked up from my notebooks, I would see his disapproving frown.


But even the most interesting interview in the world must come to an end, and she had to leave. She invited me to an upcoming RAWA function—I would be informed of the venue later. Visions of other Afghan women swam through my delirious mind. I would definitely be there, I told her puzzled escort.


But alas, the Pakistanis threw me out just three days later. Why, they never said, even though they also wondered how they woke up to the fact that an Indian journalist was in Peshawar 32 days after the fact. While I was under detention, one of the things I was quizzed in detail about was my RAWA encounter. It seemed much more than just the fact that the ISI were after an anti-Taliban group; I thought perhaps that the Pathans were unhappy that I met one of their women, and so they decided to send me packing.


Why should I think that? I visited an educated Afghan friend, who runs a shop in a fancy plaza in University Town. He’s very anti-Taliban, he’s net-savvy, he hates the Pakistanis, he seems to be a part of the modern world… yet when I mentioned that I met an activist from RAWA, his younger brother made a face.


“These women, they want Afghan women to take off their clothes,” he said. “This is not a part of Pushtun culture.”  I suppose some things never change. And that’s probably one reason the war between the US and Islamic fundamentalism will go on for a long time to come.


This story was first published in the December 2001 issue


Photo courtesy: Shutterstock

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