“In women,” Bertrand Russell said, “zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken concept of respectability”.
Zest is an in-born human capacity to enjoy life, to be interested in the world and the varied and the beautiful things it has to offer. In our society, I think, this basic human instinct is, to a large extent, killed in women not only by a mistaken concept of respectability but also by a distrust of men inculcated in women by men themselves.
Take for instance travelling. Not till very late, a woman’s going out of her house for pleasure was considered a horrible, ignoble act. Times have definitely changed. The women who have the opportunity and desire to travel in-land or abroad, do travel. Still, by and large, conventional thinking persists — that it’s dangerous for girls to travel unless they are duly chaperoned. Girls who do travel may have to face raised eyebrows and sarcastic remarks.
Recently, two single girls I know made a trip together to Europe and the US. These girls belong to middle-class families and are working since the last five years. They saved their hard-earned money and off they went this summer. They had to tolerate a lot of cynical talk from their relatives and neighbours who thought it rather shocking — not only their travelling on their own but ‘blowing up Rs. 45,000 each!’
Even travelling within your own country along with your brothers and sisters can make people worry. Last year when we went to Quetta by car (3 brothers, 3 sisters) a few of my father’s friends advised him “not to send the children alone by road, particularly the girls.” None of us was a child. Our ages ranged between 20 to 30 years!
If you go deep into it, the worry for the ‘safety of girls’ is nothing but the fear of sexual molestation by strangers, invariably men. And it means that man distrusts man. He considers the other man’s intentions as always dubious. He thinks the “other man” has nothing else to do but to harass women.
Thus men inculcate a distrust of men in their daughters, sisters, wives and in doing so they do not only become their own worst enemy but kill the zest for life in women who are then turned into suspicious, frightened souls.
We have travelled quite a few times within the country and I have always found men respectful, courteous albeit patronizing. From fellow travelers to the villagers, and the men in the streets, shops, restaurants, hotels and rest houses you would experience a congenial and appropriate interaction.
In fact, I am positive that women travelling in smaller groups without a male escort, within the country, would experience the same. However, the same would not be the case with a lone woman travelling for pleasure. It’s not that her life, or chastity, would be jeopardized. It’s just that an independent woman is not an accepted norm here as is the case in developed societies.
It was a depressing day for me in Lahore (during our recent trip to the northern areas) when we five visited the Youth Hostel’s office in Gulberg. As one of my brothers needed an International Youth Hostel membership card, we (2 sisters, 2 brothers) thought of getting our local membership as well. The man-in-charge refused to issue cards to us sisters! He would only issue it to boys, he said!
“I am not allowed to issue local membership cards to individual girls. It’s very unsafe for girls to stay in youth hostels in this country.” And he narrated in detail an ‘ugly incident’ that took place recently. According to him a group of girls from a college in Peshawar stayed in a youth hostel along with their teacher. “The boys misbehaved. It created a lot of trouble for us also”.
“Tell me,” he asked my brother, “how would you protect your sisters if a mob of, say 50, boys misbehave?” And on he went, in a serious and genuinely concerned tone, how mischievous Pakistani boys can be, how he would never, ever, allow even his own daughters to go even near a youth hostel and he said “Don’t you remember what happened once at Hawke’s Bay in Karachi?”
This talk, coming from an old, white-haired, frail man, was more saddening than irritating. He sounded so absolute in his lack of faith in boys and his convictions had such doggedness that they were almost pathetic.
We listened to him quietly as my brother’s International Youth Hostel membership card was issued. We had no particular intention of staying in youth hostels but as its membership in Pakistan is issued only from Lahore, we had thought we better get ours just in case.
I still remember vividly when we visited KaghanValley in the summer of ‘80. From Naran onward the jeep-able path that leads to the beautiful lake Saiful Maluk was blocked with an immense glacier. The driver dropped us there. The white, immense snow stretched from our feet down to the vast valley dangerously below.
We were only three — two sisters and a brother. My brother decided not to cross the glacier because we were with him. A group of four boys was also going to the lake. When we stopped, they asked my brother why we weren’t going. He explained.
“Don’t worry,” they said, “we would help you people to cross it. Your sisters are like our sisters.” And indeed they were so helpful and kind. The two of them trekked in front of us leading the way through the dangerous glacier while the other two followed us in case we slipped or met some mishap.