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 was sweeping across the runway. It 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.