Walk Behind Me, Woman

pakistan-TeaIn my late twenties I received a university graduate fellowship to study in Pakistan for one year where I studied the country’s national language (Urdu) and national religion (Islam). I lived with a Pakistani family in a Shiite village (religious minority) outside of Lahore and I would ride my bike into Lahore for lessons daily.

It took me a few months to get comfortable in my village. But shop owners in the market were finally more friendly, conversant and helpful. I could even go to local males-only tea shops and have men join me for conversations. My home life was wonderful. I have always been an earlier riser, and broke tradition there by joining my Pakistani “mother” in the kitchen in the early mornings to help her cook. My Pakistani father loved to sit around at night and debate about what he saw as Western corruption. And their two young sons often kindly joined me on walks in the village — I am sure that helped locals warm up to me.

pakistan_woman_behindAbout three months into my stay, my US girlfriend decided to visit me. Interestingly, she was born and raised in India but was the daughter of caucasian Mennonite missionaries in India — I met her at my Christian college in the USA. She spoke the Hindi fluently (which is very close to Urdu) and so could chat with folks much better than I could — I was envious.  But we had problems because she never liked prudish Muslim ways — she preferred Hindu customs. For in my part of Pakistan, a woman, at minimum, should keep her arms and legs totally covered — my Pakistani mother, for instance, wore a full burka in public. And, a woman should walk several paces behind her man — not next to him.

Well, my girlfriend rightly thought this was ridiculous — not just because she was an American, but even her Hindu self thought it horrible. But if for the two weeks she was visiting, she ignored these cultural habits, her behavior would do large damage to my reputation in the village where I would be staying for many more months to come. Even my Pakistani mother begged me to ask my girlfriend to be more modest.

So I told my girlfriend that either she obeyed these rules or we could not go out in public. She was furious. But I explained, “Look, you aren’t going to change the Pakistani way of treating women here during your two week stay. But you will destroy the quality of my stay.” She begrudgingly assented and complied. And though my village reputation was preserved, our strolls for the rest of her stay were no longer fun.

Question to readers: What would you have advised that younger Sabio?


Image credits:  Tea Shop, strolling man and women


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “Walk Behind Me, Woman

  1. estherdwumaa

    It’s not easy being ‘cheesy’ but sometimes ‘cheese’ may be necessary?

  2. petraylvasteele

    I think you were correct. Sometimes “when in Rome,” one must do as the Romans, so to speak. Although I can certainly understand your girlfriend’s outrage at such sexist customs.

  3. A question: if a Pakistani woman showed up in the U.S. and insisted on wearing a burka and walking behind men, etc. etc. etc., would you insist on forcing her to act according to American norms? If not, then you were permitting your hosts to dictate behavior to you which you would not have presumed to do to them, and caving was silly and shameful.

  4. @ The Vicar:

    Your supposed parallel seems to have problems. So a few questions to clarify what I see as equivalence issues.

    (1) Am I suppose to be a Muslim man living in America for only 1 year?

    (2) Is the Pakistani woman visiting my “girlfriend” or a wife or ….?

    (3) Is the Pakistani woman OK without wearing a Burka or does she love it and always loved it?

    (4) Do you feel it would ruin my (a Muslim’s) chance of relating in meaningful ways if the woman didn’t change here outfit.

    Hopefully you can see the many problems with your example and thus with your conclusions — not to say I am not silly and shameful. But from your tone, these questions may be totally unconvincing.

    BTW, have you ever lived abroad in a country with customs radically different than yours? If so, what compromises did you ignore?

  5. The Vicar brings up a good point. If you believe that that type of equal treatment towards another human being is wrong, then you shouldn’t be ashamed of your behavior despite local sentiment.

    The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

    It’s sad that we have people like Malala Yousafzai experience what they do to illustrate the need for change.

    Make no mistake, not conforming to local customs is not an easy path, but would you not have been sympathetic to slaves if you were in the southern US in the 1850’s or would you have still said “When in Rome”?

  6. @ petraylvasteele:
    “Sometimes” <– yes, I agree.

    I am 100% for rebelling against the system. One has to weigh when, where, how and why? These question have not reached consensus among all sorts of activists.
    So now we hear you and The Vicar calling for activism, but take a look at the particulars, and consider addressing them — consider the nuances.

  7. 1. No, you’re the host in my example. If you, as a host, wouldn’t expect your guests to conform to local custom, then your own hosts were making unfair demands by demanding the same and you should have felt free to ignore them. Instead of, you know, trying to make your girlfriend behave like less than a full human being.

    2. The Pakistani woman visiting would be, presumably, the girlfriend/fiance/whatever of someone staying with you.

    3. Since she’s doing it voluntarily in the example, it’s irrelevant.

    4. Would that be so bad?

    What you are saying, in effect, boils down to this: you think the people you were visiting were so shallow and backwards that they just couldn’t handle a visitor who didn’t conform to their cultural mores. Well, hey, you’re the expert — but I don’t see why, in that case, the ones who should be forced to behave differently are the ones who you think are less shallow and backwards.

    Furthermore, your last little squib, attempting to shame me, can certainly be interpreted as meaning that you think that contact with an alien culture expands your horizons. But if you believe that — why do you seem to think that only westerners should have their horizons expanded? Your girlfriend wasn’t stealing from the villagers or seducing the men or anything legitimately harmful — or at least if she was you have omitted those details — so why do you not say “this was an excellent opportunity for the Pakistani village to discover that people in other parts of the world act differently”? Why do you think that only western-ish cultures can benefit from being exposed to different lifestyles?

    If I were hosting a visitor from a Muslim country, and they, in turn, had a visitor, and — without causing anyone any harm — that visitor insisted on bowing to Mecca and praying in a public place, and people started to refuse service to the both of them as a result, I would be extremely angry. It would reflect badly on my community as hosts that we couldn’t accommodate harmless behavior which was odd to us. I am applying that same standard to others — you may not like it, but at least I’m consistent.

  8. Earnest

    So I guess it is fair to ask younger Sabio, as you are participating in Pakistani culture, what do you expect to get out of that experience? What mark do you wish to place on your adopted village, and at what personal cost.

    Young Sabio’s girlfriend is the daughter of missionaries. Why did young Sabio run from her halfway around the world? Why did he not take her with him?

    Young Sabio’s girlfriend looks like she belongs in the Pakistani village, but she is (presumably) christian, and is mentally at odds with conservative muslim codes.

    I would advise young Sabio to make a clean break with the relationship and tell her to stay home because the relationship would be even more strained by her coming to Pakistan. Or young Sabio could pull up the tent stakes and go to Kerala in India, where there is a much more egalitarian belief system. Surely his woman is worth the price of that train ticket to meet her in a place where she feels safe and accepted.

  9. @ The Vicar,

    Great reply — I will try to respond (even though I am typing between patients at work — bad me). And let me say, I never enjoy arguing for arguing sake. If I feel information is being exchanged and understanding can improve, I keep discussing, but if ever I feel it slide into unproductive stance-protection, I drop out.

    (A) You understand that I am supportive of rebelling against bad practices in any culture — I do it myself and at costs.

    1. My hosts weren’t making “unfair” demands — to them, they were “common sense”. And they couldn’t imagine it would not be common sense to me. I was not in a sophisticated area of the world or of Pakistan. For instance, my Pakistani language teacher was a woman and a lawyer, in Lahore she travelled freely. Indeed, her family asked I marry here later that year — to make the story complicated. My host village and the town of Lahore were only about 10 miles apart, but they were also a millenium apart. I acted differently in both domains.

    4. People don’t have to be shallow or backwards to think their world is common sense — indeed it is the fate of most of us in at least some domains of our lives if not all.

    Consider the gays who feel flamboyant gay parades are the way to change society vs. those who feel other means are better. These issues are complicated, my friend. Your writing seems to oversimplify and pretend you know the answer for all situations.

    I knew very well the consequence of being seen as walking around with a whore would be? That is how they viewed such behavior — no matter how wrong, backward or shallow YOU may feel that is. I certainly dislike it, but I had things I wanted to accomplish in the next months that would have been highly compromised by her not willing to understand my situation — which she did. There was no forcing (as you first note implied).

    Concerning your hypothetical guest from another country: imagine that in their country it was fine to urinate or masturbate in public. Would you say anything to them? Or how about whistling at women — would you say anything to them? Your last example seems to show you don’t understand the story.

    BTW, you never answered my question — have you ever lived for a long time in another country where you speak that foreign language and the culture is extremely different that yours? I am not attempting the genetic fallacy here, I am curious. You could be right in your criticisms even without those experiences.

  10. @Earnest,
    Good questions

    I was there as a student, to learn about the values of the people, to learn about their religion, to understand how they relate to others and what they’re dreams were. I really was not their to leave a mark on the village — I was there to learn. Actually, the CIA also had vested interests in my presence as a neutral observer but that is another story.

    Actually, the girlfriend had a fellowship in India at the same time, so she took a train from Delhi to Lahore. And remember, she was white — not South Asian.

    Interestingly enough, the relationship did break up later, in part because I left Christianity a year earlier and it wore on her.

    I’d love to visit Kerala! India is a huge country.

  11. Earnest

    Thank you Sabio that does clarify some things. It is hard to serve, or pretend to serve, several masters at once. And I apologize for my racial profiling, I made assumptions that were incorrect. It is also possible that the girlfriend had delusions of her own capacity to blend with local society.

  12. Earnest

    @ Sabio I sometimes have my own delusions of repeating my previous Kerala “road trip”. Wonderful fairly liberalized area of India where logical discourse with foreigners is somthing every local seems to want to do with the white people that come there. A very healthy productive Marxist government locally. I predict you would have a prolonged stay if you ever went there.

  13. Did Young Sabio make these requests before his girlfriend came to visit?

    This is a situation where I would probably feel torn. Respecting local customs as long as they do no harm, is something I would try to do. I think I would have less of a problem with the clothing requirements than with the walking distance.

    I think if Young Sabio and his girlfriend both had the same goals in being there, she would have had less of a problem fitting in.

  14. @ Mike aka,
    No, he did not make the requests before the visit — he did not know they would be necessary — he hadn’t been paying attention. And knowing how the GF had been immersed in Indian culture while still Christian, I figured she’d be very sensitive to these modesty requests. So I was taken a bit off guard.

    You are right, we had different goals — but enough that we worked it out. I later joined her in India for more adventures. In India, she asked me not to offend her Missionary circles and I indulge. The more I indulge, the more I realized I was leaving Christianity.

  15. I think I would have made the same assumptions.

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