Looks, Gazes, Escapes

The Pakistan International Airlines flight had just landed in Abu Dhabi. Weary, still weighed down by the intense sadness of that last day in Lahore, I walked down the gangway behind a group of Pakistani migrant workers. A warm wind swept across the runway, gently carressed our legs and shoveled us into a bus waiting to drop us off at the terminal. Through a glass door, I entered a world of symmetrical indoor trees and green faux leather chairs lining the corridors. Abu Dhabi Airport with its shiny facilities and marble floors that were constantly polished by an army of underpaid workers felt completely out of place.

Even though I hadn’t noticed it right away, something had changed along with the climate and surroundings. On the bus, it felt as though everyone was still staring at me. I had already gotten so used to it. Over the course of the past six weeks, people had constantly measured my appearance. In Pakistan, the male gaze seems to be all-accompanying. Almost every public space is policed by men’s looks and unspoken comments. The way women dress, walk, speak and behave is constantly being gauged. And it’s not only men, women can be part of that exercise, too. Much of the intensity of that experience surely had to do with the fact that as a non-desi woman, I attracted even more attention. Foreigners aren’t unheard of in Lahore, but they aren’t common either. Moving in public, I often felt that I ventured too close to some culturally sensitive lines or inadvertently crossed them. A little referee inside myself was constantly calling me out on my behavior, raising yellow or red cards in turn: don’t laugh too loud at that joke, don’t smile too much at that guy, don’t walk too fast when crossing the street, don’t do this or that. Appear modestly yet elegantly dressed, be feminine in a way people expect you to be, but still strive to come across as a competent scholar. Try not too hard to impress people because it might be perceived as “Western” arrogance, and yet defend your territory and freedom of movement. Respect the culture, adapt to people’s expectations, appreciate the hierarchies, acknowledge the age difference and for god’s sake, don’t get annoyed at mansplaining.

To keep up this performance was incredibly stressful, especially because the boundaries remained unclear throughout the time. It’s likely that much of it just happened in my head. Nobody ever told me when and where I had crossed a red line. Sometimes, I could tell that I had committed a faux pas from people’s reaction, but most of the time I was just worried about the mere possibility. The fear of stepping on people’s toes and losing their respect is a constant companion whenever I travel to Pakistan. As much as I love the country, it is incredibly stressful and tiring to constantly check myself.

The extend of that burden only became obvious once it was released. As our bus approached the terminal, I felt as though the men’s gaze was getting a bit milder and less intense. I imagined that one by one, they withdrew their looks, detached themselves and let go of their curiosity. Surrounded by other foreigners, I suddenly merged with the crowd and became one among many instead of the odd one out. An incredibly heavy load that I hadn’t even realized I had been carrying was lifted from my shoulders. People in short pants, wearing backpacks and colorful scarfs walked by. With confident strides they measured their way, pushing their sunglasses back, plucking strands of hair from their faces. It felt liberating to merge with the crowd, to become invisible and faceless, a mere figure in an army of tourists floating through a capitalist nightmare where glitzy shops sold crap the world could do without. Most likely though, this transformation was just an illusion. After all, social boundaries policed by the male gaze exist everywhere. Those unknown to me in one society were probably just being replaced with more familiar ones.

Islands of Light, Shores of Stone

I plunge headlong into the cold, dark water. The taxi takes me from Mazang, a middle-class neighborhood built to serve the former civil lines of colonial Lahore, to the posh grounds of DHA, an upscale housing society originally constructed in the mid-1970s for army officers and their families. Night has fallen. From the backseat of the car, I quietly watch the cityscape unfolding. Fancy restaurants and shops are lining the streets. Brightly lit window panes scream their content into the world. The dresses and designs on display are rarely noticed by passersby strolling along the main boulevard, cell phones in their hand, bags across their arm. A young girl absent-mindedly looks at a shop window. With a nonchalant gesture, she throws her dupatta (scarf worn to cover the breast) over the shoulder and turns around to her companions, watching them laugh out loud at a joke.

The car glides like a fish through the streets, past elegant crowds of carefully groomed, manicured beauties and temples of consumerist culture. A powerful current draws me near the shores of one of the most privileged islands in this archipelago, Lahore University of Management Sciences. No visible borders demarcate one island from another, nor do coast guards patrol their boundaries. And yet, the territory is mapped out so clearly that no doubt remains. Everyone knows what water they belong to, how to breathe and keep afloat in it. The waiters in the restaurants and guards in the parking lot are aware they do not belong here. The young girls in short kurtas (tunics) staring listlessly into the distance feel at home. Or do they? Maybe the uncanniness of their existence escapes my notice. After all, even these islands of light are separated into individual units, marked out by even finer lines of social belonging. But far beyond, in outer lands surrounded by deep water, larger entities with scarce vegetation can be found. Bushes and low trees are lining their desert landscapes. Everyone knows they exist, but few have been there. Life on them is unimaginably hard, seemingly unbearable. Their sheer existence frightens people. Luckily, their inhabitants do not know how to swim, and the water surrounding them is rough and wild.

Although the outward shell of the taxi and my skin’s complexion allow me to blend in with the surroundings, I feel like a distant observer. The place is strange despite its appearance of familiarity (the shops, the dresses, the mobile phones), and only accessible through a currency people have already carried in their pockets since childhood – cultural capital. They smell differently, walk with more confidence and speak a language that reflects their upbringing. Urdu is spoken with an English accent here, heavily interspersed with foreign loanwords. Some sentences are already fully transformed and assimilated, bearing only an occasional “matlab” or “lekin” as a marker of former belonging. This island is half a world away from the street where I live. My street is inhabited by grumpy car mechanics with huge mustaches, shouting vegetable vendors making their rounds in the morning, and ice-cream sellers on bicycles playing brassy-sounding versions of Beethoven’s “For Elise”. But it already feels as if it belongs to a different archipelago altogether. So where do people go from here? Where is the ship that brings them to the other side?

Racism knows no religion

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long-standing history of political tensions. Both countries accuse each other regularly of supporting terrorism or not doing enough to eradicate it. These days, anti-Afghan sentiments have reached a peak in Pakistan. Media outlets, the military, and politicians alike blame Afghan refugees for terrorist attacks committed on Pakistani soil, and for almost any other imagineable crime: rape, street robbery, murder – you name it. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan was closed in mid-February, allegedly to stop terrorist attacks. It caused millions of dollars losses in trade and disrupted the lives of thousands of people who have relatives on either side of the border. In early March, the border was reopened, but Pakistani security forces continue to racially profile Afghan refugees by randomly arresting, searching, intimidating, abusing and torturing them.

I was not really surprised then when a high-ranking cleric of the Catholic Church at a recent dinner conversation proclaimed that Afghans were at the core of Pakistan’s security problem. He pointed out incidents of suicide attacks, rape and robbery that involved Afghans (or people from the northern areas, because Pathans and Afghans are often just thrown together indiscriminately in public discourse). Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a debate I could just as well have had in Germany. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“In 2015, I was in Munich”, the cleric narrated. “The refugee crisis happened. I was asked by my hosts to give a statement. I said: take heed and learn from our mistakes. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was pressured by the UN and other political actors into accepting Afghan refugees. We gave in, and look at the price we’ve paid. Our country has become destabilized by this.”

“But terrorism is first of all a home-grown problem. Attacks are overwhelmingly committed by local groups with long-standing roots in the country. There is a history to that which goes back to the colonial period”, I replied.

“You’re right, we have a problem with terrorism in southern Punjab. But in general, Afghans are also more prone to crime”, he deflected. “Or why is it than whenever a woman is raped on Pakistan’s streets, there is somehow an Afghan involved?”, he asked.

Border between Pakistan and Afghanistan“This is the same kind of rhetorics employed to ostracize refugees and immigrants in Germany”, I pointed out. “It is nothing but racial profiling. One group is otherized to use it as a scapegoat.”

“What about the rape and murder of a student in Freiburg, then?”, he asked. “Wasn’t the perpetrator also an Afghan?”

“Yes, but rape and murder is also committed by German men born in Germany with no immigrant background”, I replied. “Refugees, Afghans and Muslims aren’t more frequently involved in these crimes than other people. We just hear more about it in the news. Not all refugees are good people, of course. But they aren’t worse than other people, either.”

And so on. I have had these discussions so many times in Germany already. The arguments are always the same, they never change. Rhetorical devices are used to portray one group of people as the root cause for someone else’s problems. One could easily transplant this conversation from Pakistan to Germany or the US without changing its content. Just replace names and places, and you get the same thing. Whether Trump is saying it, or the AfD in Germany, or a Pakistani cleric doesn’t matter. It still boils down to the same problem.

This conversation brought home to me again that we are all prone to racism (sounds  like a commonplace, but it was a good reminder). Religious conviction, education, upbringing, affluence or social standing do not protect us from discriminating others based upon their skin complexion or background. Eventually, it is our individual responsibility to develop a positive attitude towards others that looks beyond outward appearance and sees humanity first. At some point in this process, all arguments will have to end, and trust in the goodness of the person next to us has to develop. Racism knows no religion, but humanity doesn’t either.


5 Things You Didn’t Know About Lahore

As I’m getting ready to head out for another trip to Pakistan, I realize again what a bad reputation the country has. Friends are usually just shaking their heads, wondering what on earth draws me to a country full of terrorists, religious extremists and bigots. So here are 5 (positive) things about Lahore you probably didn’t know:

1 – There is a critical mass movement. Never heard of it? Basically, it brings people  together to ride their bikes through the city. The goal is to reclaim the streets for cyclists and promote environmentalism. Originally, the movement started in the US and has now spread all over the world. While this might sound like an easy ride in San Francisco or London, it takes guts to navigate the crazy Lahori traffic on a bike. Usually, only poor people ride their bikes. Everyone else thinks it safer to behold the unfolding chaos and deafening noise from the back of a rickshaw or an air-conditioned car. Critical Mass Lahore has about 6,900 members on Facebook – and counting.


2 – Lahore is home to an enthusiastic board gaming community. Settlers of Catan is a favorite as I heard, as are Risk, Pandemic and other (mostly German!) games. People meet in coffee shops or at home for an evening of strategic thinking, heated debates, and adventurous moves. Ordering pizza or Chinese food is part of the fun as it is anywhere else in the world.

3 – Organic vegetables and bread are available from the Roshni Association located in Bedian village, just outside Lahore. A Pakistani and a German educationists set up the Anthroposophic community center, organic farm and inclusive school about two decades ago. Eating healthy and organic is a growing trend in Pakistan – if you can afford it, that is.

4 – The Peerzada family’s puppet museum is a marvellous discovery for kids and grown-ups alike. As stated on their website, “the Museum Of Puppetry consists of three stories (!), housing puppets representing more than 65 countries, totalling about 300 puppets displayed.” They also organize regular theater workshops, puppet shows, and festivals.

5 – Last but not least, despite news about religious discrimination and persecution, Lahore has a vibrant Christian community. Terrible attacks, mob violence and other atrocities occur and they are unfortunately part of the political realities. Yet, there is also a regular daily life for the Christian minority, who runs its own schools, churches, community centers, book shops, media outlets, and many other institutions.

Choir at the Convent of Jesus and Mary

Christians are part of Lahore’s social fabric, not a cloistered, cut-off, beleaguered minority. The international media and religious fanatics likewise try to suggest otherwise, but as (predominantly) Punjabis, Christians share a common history, language, and many cultural traditions with other Lahoris. They are not separate or “different” from other citizens, and they contribute in many important ways to public life.

Back in Germany

Dear faithful blog readers,

Unfortunately, I had to leave Pakistan for health reasons and am now back in Munich. Since I arrived in Lahore three weeks ago, my stomach has been giving me troubles. I tried everything to adjust to Pakistani food, but my body stubbornly resisted these efforts. All in all, I’ve lost about 5 kg of weight. In the end, I decided it was not worth to jeopardize my health. Keeping a rice-and-banana diet for two more weeks was also not an option (I had eaten not much else for the preceding weeks already). Eventually, I rebooked my flight and showed up at Simon’s doorsteps unannounced on Thursday. It was a nice surprise!

Despite these issues, I still managed to get a lot of work done, both for my PhD and for the home. In several visits I made to the home and to Sister Hend, the Pakistani coordinator of the project, we’ve laid the foundation for our future work. The most important point in all this is always to build trust with people. Openness and transparency are crucial for any kind of development work. So much foreign aid in Pakistan fails because of the disconnectedness between Western donors and local staff that creates misunderstandings. Most of it is really a communication problem. We’ve always tried to avoid falling into the same trap. The change we want to initiate has to start from the people at our home. It’s their work, after all, and their life. We can only assist them in their own cause and walk a bit of the way together with them. We’ve never imposed our own ideas on them, but took their experiences and ideas seriously. Even though change often comes frustratingly slow and not without immense effort, we still feel it’s worthwhile. In the past two years alone, so many things have improved, from clean water to a better environment and more accountability on part of the staff. It’s often a delicate balance and many things remain imperfect. Still, we can look with pride on the fact that today people on the ground feel motivated by our support, encouraged by our interest in what they do, challenged by the new ideas we confront them with, and most of all, respected and moved by the fact that we acknowledge the immense effort and energy they put into this work on a daily basis. It is the caregivers’s faithful service on the ground that is truly humbling to us and that actually teaches us a lesson or two about compassion and dedication.

Thanks for continuing to read so far! And don’t forget to check our website for upcoming projects and infos: omidepunjab.com!

Love, Maria


Yesterday, I met with Sister Hend, the superior of the congregation that runs the House of Wonders. She determines the overall direction of the work, decides about staff rotation, and manages the finances. Whenever we want to discuss big ideas, we go to her.
After lunch, we sat down together to talk about the situation at the House of Wonders. So far, it acts as a shelter home and an emergency accommodation. Homeless people, beggars, ex-prisoners, victims of domestic abuse, divorced women, acid victims, street children – everyone finds a place here. There is no condition for getting admission and the sisters don’t demand any fees. Some people are brought in by their relatives, some by the police, and a few come by themselves. There is the street child who doesn’t know his parent’s names, there is the disabled daughter who was rejected by her family, and many other cases. Most of the residents have some sort of mental or behavorial disability, and many are actually traumatized. In the House of Wonders, they find a safe haven, they are clothed and fed and their basic medical and personal needs are taken care of. However, once admitted, people usually stay for many years, or even until they die. In very few cases, their families take them back home.

Sister Hend taking notes
Sister Hend taking notes

Until today, no real concept has been developed that goes beyond the emergency help described above. Many residents pass their days dozing in the shade of a tree, chatting with others, singing, or watching TV. Many help with household chores, but not everyone is fit to do that. The sisters offer physical activities and art therapy on an irregular basis. But too often they have their hands fulll with administrative work. A greater vision is lacking, an idea for how to serve the residents beyond their most basic needs.
In our meeting, Hend and I developed the fundamental outlines for a new concept. We asked ourselves: what kind of institution should the House of Wonders be? What can we offer the residents once their basic needs have been met? What short-term and long-term goals exist with regard to each person living there? How can we help them to create an alternative life, another existence beyond the pain and trauma they went through?
Hend and I saw our brainstorming as a first step to initiate a longer thought process about the home. She will take the ideas we collected into her community, discuss them with the sisters working at the home, and develop an outline for a new vision based on their input. Visions can only come into reality when they are carefully nurtured, and when people have a chance to grow with them. The more contextualized and localized our vision will be in the end, the better.

Politics and stomach troubles

Dear readers,

Sorry for the silence of those past few days! I haven’t been able to get out of the house lately for two reasons: political troubles and my stomach. On August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, two politicians started a long march from Lahore to the capital Islamabad in order to protest against the government’s politics. In the run-up to the march, several clashes between police and protesters broke out in the city. Our hosts here in Pakistan deemed it wise to keep us PhD students out of trouble. We could not go back to the library to continue our research, and certain areas were also closed off by police barricades. Now the protesters have arrived in Islamabad. Life has gone back to normal in Lahore and we’re able to move again. The second issue was my stomach. It has always been giving me trouble whenever I travel to Pakistan, and it also happened this time. I’ve been on a rice-and-banana diet for the past six days and felt very weak. Since yesterday, things have started to look up, so there will again be activity on this blog. Pop by again soon, and thanks for sticking with me during this Pakistani adventure!

Love, Maria