Being an urban woman — dweller of a concrete jungle — you get an idea of your rural counterparts — the women who inhabit vast lands and terraced mountains — only through crude statistics that tells you of their illiteracy, of their deaths during child-births, of their unpaid labour, of their harsh life.
It’s seldom that you have a glimpse of them, not spun out of the figures of statistical bulletins but of real encounters, no matter how brief, how abrupt.
And so I savour those fleeting impressions I get while travelling up north.
As we drove past Sindh’s barren landscape, its date grooves, banana orchards, sporadic patches of cultivation, and waded our way through the lush plains of Punjab I felt a refreshing change: rural women moved about with much more freedom and assurance.
Since Sindh is sparsely populated with villages far apart and located farther down the National Highway, you rarely see women. It was only in Khairpur district that I saw numerous women on date farms picking, drying and sorting dates.
In contrast to the fields and farms and purely rural scenario, minor cities and small towns are women-less places. Or so it seems. When the Highway winds through some Abaaili with pucca dwellings, stalls and bazaars, women disappear as if they don’t exist at all. Even in big cities like Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan — if you are just passing them by, or staying overnight, you would hardly see women. If at all you come across one, she is wrapped up in a chaddar or hidden in a burqa.
Personally I feel small towns are the worst places for women. Their movement is extremely restricted and they are cloistered inside the four walls of a home. I find women of small towns of all the provinces quite self-conscious of themselves and rather shaky outwardly. Of course it’s a subjective impression and you have to go much deeper in their life to find out their inner strength which is not reflected on their faces.
Of all the provinces, I find rural Punjabi woman the most confident and self-assured. She moves about with a certain bainiyaazi which I find very striking. She is not at all self-conscious and seems very much at ease with herself and with the world. Though her head is covered properly like the rural women elsewhere in Pakistan, she doesn’t shy away from strangers. She gives you a relaxed eye-to-eye contact unlike the women of NWFP who instantaneously turn their backs on you, pull out a chaddar carefully to cover the face and look the other way — till you or the vehicle vanishes from their sight.
I remember chatting with a few women of southern Punjab outside the entrance of the mazar of Baba Farid Gunj Shakar at Pak Pattan. Squatting on the pavement, each with a huge straw basket filled with colourful glass bangles, their faces flushed with the heat of the day and the hope of selling their wares, they exuded confidence. One was a widow. The other’s husband was sick. Another’s was out of work. So there they were, coming from nearby villages, since several years, supporting the families or supplementing their husbands’ meagre income.
And then there was Gulnaz, a washerman’s daughter whom I met in Bhurbun, a quiet beautiful place about 25 km away from Murree. Sitting with her 5-year-old nephew on the terraced field, in front of her hut, half-hidden with plants and thickets, she gazed at the vale below and the mountains beyond. Her father, meanwhile, washed the laundry of the hotel he worked for.
During snowfall, when the hotel and the place is deserted, Gulnaz goes to Pindi to live with her stepmother. Her mother is dead and her sisters are married. She lives alone with her father. This summer she had brought her nephew along with her. “I love this place. It’s so serene. Sometimes I feel lonely. My father is very strict. He doesn’t let me talk to anyone. I have a few friends, who live in the villages below. But now they are married.”
Gulnaz had studied upto class six. She wasn’t keen on marriage “What’s there in marriage?” Coming from a simple village girl, this question bewildered me. “I wish to see different places. Mountains fascinate me. I wish I could go to Skardu and Gilgit.”
So you never know what aspirations, what dreams lie in their hearts. Most amazing are the women of Hunza Valley. They are so progressive, so eager to educate their daughter. And they look so strong and assertive.