In 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.
About 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?