A Benefit for Western Women in Pakistan

Pakistan, home to 108 mountain peaks above 23,000 feet, is one of the most rugged countries on earth. It is a dream for photographers because the mountains are visible everywhere, surrounding you as you drive along the windy bumpy roads.

In 1992, I joined two other women for a month-long excursion throughout Pakistan. We had a male guide and driver (and sometimes a second driver and cook when it was necessary to camp when there weren’t any appropriate accommodations for Western women.) These wonderful men were from the Nizari sect of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam. These people are followers of the Aga Khan and accept the idea of education and some other limited freedoms for women. We found this arrangement wasn’t always accepted by the wider male populace, as we traveled in a jeep through the backwaters of this beautiful but inhospitable country. As was the expectation, we stayed covered from head to toe even in the extreme heat and wore head scarves when appropriate, to conform to local norms.

The trip had many difficulties. Once in a small village we found a bridge was washed out, preventing our passing. The unsympathetic religious-conservative village elders told us we would have to get permission from a land owner to go around through his property. They told us he was out of town and would be back later. We waited for a while, then realized it could be a long time before getting permission, if ever. Finally, our intrepid driver piled us all in the jeep, told us to hold on for dear life and, gunning it, forded the rising river, making it easily to the other side. It was the ride of my life!

But an even more impossible situation occurred when we encountered a one-kilometer-long land slide which closed the road just before our arrival on the scene. Our driver had several ideas, which included walking across the land slide and finding a ride on the other side, with the driver going hundreds of miles around the break to pick us up somewhere on the other side, days later. This didn’t sound like fun to me at all. I suggested we go to the airline office and get  a flight. Our guide said it was impossible, telling us there were never any seats on these planes. I persisted until our guide finally said we could try, just to get me off his back.

We walked into the local airline office and requested to see the day manager. Shocked that three Western women had arrived unannounced he fumbled around awhile then, not wanting to be responsible for our well-being, told us four seats on the airplane for the following day had suddenly become available. Shocked, our guide thanked him profusely. We learned that even though we had withstood some tough moments as women throughout our journey, this experience of being given special treatment in the face of difficulty was the one payoff our gender brought us.

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