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Outsiders must check their stereotypes about Pakistan

I have worked in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, but when headhunters would suggest a job in Peshawar, I would refuse. Almost at the frontline in the war on terror, Peshawar is an hour away from the house in which US special forces found Osama bin Laden. The city has hash, unlicensed weapons and roadside bombs. I would have rather read about it in newspapers over breakfast far away than have to live there.

I liked living in my comfortable bubble in Islamabad — until I said yes to Peshawar. I dusted off my old long-sleeved shirts and loose trousers in preparation for the segregated, conservative environment there. Having resisted family pressure to cover my head, I resigned myself to doing so in Peshawar. I would put my feminism aside like a forgotten coat.

I decided I would talk less, smile more, and defer to the judgment of the men I reported to. In short, I would do everything I campaigned for 10 years as a feminist in Pakistan to not do. I swallowed my pride, signed the contract and went to Peshawar to become an adviser to a development agency.

The first thing I learned was that the headscarf is optional at work. During my first visit to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa secretariat, I saw female officials, some of them walking around with an air of authority, their headscarves dangling on their shoulders like an afterthought. I had not seen this before, even in Islamabad, so I did the same.

During my first meeting with key government officials, the conversation was polite and respectful. There was an air of approachability. A few weeks later, in a meeting where I was the only woman among a few dozen men, I sat as far back in the boardroom as I could. I heard the men at the conference table whisper. Then the lead official gestured to me to sit at the head table, which I did.

My barriers to my move to Peshawar were my stereotypes, my preconceived ideas and my privilege. When my privilege was checked, I started to see Peshawar for what it is: Just another part of my multilayered homeland.

Aisha Sarwari



I had picked some serious fights for my right to self-expression elsewhere, but was so willing to assume I had none at all in Peshawar. Why? I assumed the environment was utterly hostile and unforgiving to the kind of woman I am (though I do sometimes feel like furniture here).

Perhaps my status protects me from the extreme misogyny other women face. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police force advertised with pride last week that they blurred out women’s cleavages on trial art and billboards. So men do determine what the honor code dictates, and the government partakes in that judgment, which is dangerous and backward.

Peshawar is different from the bigger cities of Pakistan, in a good way. I am at the heart of Pashtun culture, known for its honor code, patriarchy and rigidity, and I do not exactly feel oppressed.

The professional environment is comfortable and accommodating of my values. My barriers to my move to Peshawar were my stereotypes, my preconceived ideas and my privilege. When my privilege was checked, I started to see Peshawar for what it is: Just another part of my multilayered homeland.

I have worked in other provincial governments, and harassment was endemic. Sadly, without realizing it, I had typecast the people of Peshawar without knowing them. That makes me feel terrible.

I did not just get a seat at the table, I have been involved in almost everything my role demands of me, professionally and socially. I earned that seat at the table in Peshawar. My feminism made me earn it. Peshawar is challenging me in ways I never expected. I encourage outsiders to check their stereotypes about Pakistan too.

• Aisha Sarwari is co founder of the Women’s Advancement Hub, a grassroots platform for women to amplify their voices. She has been working on women’s rights for more than 15 years in Pakistan.