Inhospitable Reception

“While the ‘easy-white-woman’ stereotype is being reinforced, how can Pakistan become a tourist destination?”

Conversing with Charlotte is always a pleasure. She’s original and witty; each encounter with her is memorable – regrettably, the last one for all the wrong reasons. She told me some stories about her visits to Pakistan that left me uneasy, even embarrassed. Charlotte, or CV as I call her, is an international development worker who remains committed to her work in the much-maligned world of development assistance. She has worked through the horrors of east African genocides and actually does something about the poverty and discrimination that we all love to talk about but often ignore.

Our last meeting took place in a nice restaurant with live music and great food. We chatted amiably till conversation drifted towards the attraction native men feel towards white women. Charlotte had many stories to reveal and agreed that several white tourists hunt for sexual gratification across the globe. But what did CV reveal that shamed me so much?

On her visit to Pakistan some years ago, while catching a domestic flight, she was searched at one of our international airports. The female police official took her inside the booth and insisted on searching in ways more than necessary.

“Are you looking for work? I can get it all fixed up” said the dutiful constable. Clueless, CV thanked her and said that she was already employed and was in Pakistan for official work. “No, I mean I can get you a very good rate” said the official. “I know a lot of businessmen and politicians who would remunerate you appropriately for your services.”

Charlotte got the point and became a little upset. Rebuking the official, she came out of the cubicle and called for the lady’s supervisor. This gent was unmoved by Charlotte’s complaint and did not think that the policewoman had committed any error. Getting more furious, Charlotte went to see the supervisor’s supervisor. After the long process of searching him out, she finally found him and complained about her experience.

“What is so offensive in all of this?” was this official’s response. “Are you shy of dealing with low-level staff? After all, I work with them too. We help a lot of visitors in this way. And in any case, why are you making this into such a big deal?”

Hurrying to catch her flight, CV did not have the patience to follow the matter up further. She overlooked this incident, accomplished her work and felt that bygones were bygones.

However, on her next visit a few months later, CV boarded another domestic flight and the story gets grimmer. Once on board, the flight captain approached her with these words:

“You are too attractive not to be noticed. I noticed you when you were walking towards the plane and I immediately figured that you would be good. It’s the way you walk, my dear.”

Charlotte mentally reviewed her clothing and demeanour for any signs of giving the impression that she was on the lookout. She saw only her standard work clothes, modest per the guidelines of travelling in Pakistan and crumpled after an 18-hour day. Having consoled herself with the thought that none of this was her fault, she told the captain off and threatened to lodge a formal complaint. Her words made no difference at all: the macho man remained totally unmoved and left her with his visiting card.

If this were not enough, when she arrived at her destination and approached the hotel telephone operator requesting a wake-up call, he informed CV that the orange shalwar kameez was looking great on her and many people were wanting to get to know her. At that point, CV told me, she decided never to return to the land of the Indus again.
This impetuous vow did not last long in the face of her commitment to the work she was undertaking on behalf of her organisation. Her work, dealing with important rights and development projects, brought her back and this time, she had to be in the province that is much sinned against.

This time, CV’s stalker turned out to be none other than a high and mighty official of the province. Please note that this was not a traditional sort of politician, the kind vilified by Christina Lamb or Emma Duncan, but a rather suave gent. His personal staff kept sending CV gifts and insisting on a personal tete-a-tete with the provincial deity. And poor CV had to be curt and impolite to ward off this demon.

What did she do later? Nothing except complain to her organisation who asked whether she wanted to be moved away from Pakistan-related work. CV’s response was in the negative since her professional commitment came before her personal woes, but she is wiser for all these experiences. She remains on her guard all the time, dresses in local clothes only and avoids travelling alone.

Hearing this story, dear readers, you can imagine how I felt. I was unable to say much and was a wee bit embarrassed. With human trafficking cartels bringing Central Asian sex workers to Pakistan and embedding this phenomenon in the urban centres, the ‘easy-white-woman’ stereotype is being reinforced. In the face of this reality, how can Pakistan become a tourist destination? The rich heritage and natural beauty can do no good if a visitor is being threatened and insulted at the same time.

There is an Indian tourism advertisement that shows a taxi driver grabbing a young tourist by the arm and pulling her towards his taxi. He is stopped and rebuked by a young Indian who tells the taxi driver to mend his ways, reminding him that guests are sacred. A lesson indeed from our much-maligned neighbour!

This post appeared earlier in The Friday Times

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