A Space of One’s
By Beena Sarwar
One of my favorite
early morning things to do in Karachi is to walk
along Seaview beach. When I first started doing
this a couple of years ago, concerned friends asked,
“Is it safe?” Or, “Aren’t
you scared, walking alone?” The answer is,
yes it is, and no I’m not -- although I have
to confess to some initial apprehensions.
The first time, in fact I didn’t have the
confidence to do it alone, and went with a friend
who lives at Seaview apartments along the beachfront.
We walked out of her place, crossed the road, and
battled the summer evening sea breeze -- wind rather
-- that whipped our hair around our faces, and made
our clothes flap wildly around us. That was a couple
of summers ago. We never did manage to get our act
together to join up for a walk, but my inhibition
about walking in that public space was broken.
Shortly afterwards, when the summer holidays ended,
I took to walking half the length of the beach and
then back, after dropping my daughter to school
in the morning.
Sometimes, I’m the only person at the far
end, more deserted than the commercial half closer
to the city where fancy ‘cornice points’
and a portable pizza truck now stand, testimony
to the corporatisation of even this public beach.
They’ve been there since the Defense Housing
Authorities chased away the performing monkey wallas,
horse and camel-ride wallas and peanut and corn-sellers
who used to cater to the families and children who
crowd the beach in the evenings.
The reason given was that these monkey wallas and
their ilk were making the place dirty. Well, now
they’re begging at street corners instead,
and the beach is still dirty despite the army of
municipal workers industriously cleaning it up in
the mornings. This is either because the sea washes
up a lot of junk or because people don’t use
the giant dustbins provided in that half of the
beach (where the evening crowds gather as it’s
lit up at night).
Still, Seaview is not as bad as ‘urban beaches’
go. Some days, actually, it’s quite pristine.
Other days, you can see the previous day’s
leftovers. Shoes are the most common... a child’s
sandal, a high-heeled slipper. Eatables... half
a melon, an onion, a half-buried sack of something,
or fruit juice containers... The strangest thing
I ever saw there was a ram’s head. Half buried
in the sand, with two horns. Some days it was more
visible, other days more submerged in the sand.
It was there for months.
But mostly, the part of the beach I walk on is washed
clean by the sea, so that all you have to contend
with are footprints of those who were there before
you that morning or late the previous night after
the tide went out. Some were bare footed, others
wore joggers, or rubber slippers... someone walked
by with a limp, or dragging a foot.
At that time of morning, you encounter few other
people walking or jogging on the sand -- but now,
other women are also visible, alone or in pairs.
Some, like me, have a dog in tow. Sometimes couples
stroll by walking close together but usually not
quite touching. Hardly something you’d even
remark on in most other countries, but in post-Zia
Pakistan, a sight rare enough in public to be memorable.
Actually, a woman walking alone in public is also
a rare enough sight (which explains my own initial
hesitation) and why so many people asked how I felt
about it. Even rarer is the sight of a woman cycling
anywhere -- as women of my mother’s generation
quite casually used to do until the mid-1960s. Of
course women are visible at bazaars and in the semi-public
parks that are becoming more popular with the urban
middle classes, where they walk, even jog. But even
this still smacks of defiance for those of us who
grew up during the Zia years when women were pretty
much banished from public spaces and could not even
be shown running on television because the authorities
considered it ‘provocative’. What this
says more about their mindsets is another matter,
but it did have the effect of inhibiting women’s
sports and physical movement in the public sphere.
It is only now, almost twenty years down the line
that some women in the big cities feel empowered
enough to walk out in public in trousers and t-shirts,
an individual freedom that anyone should have. A
colleague in fact commented the other day that women
in public now even walk more confidently than he
remembers them doing before.
I remember reading about the movement Women Take
Back the Night, in which women in some North American
cities would come out to ‘reclaim’ spaces
that had been denied them by male harassment or
lack of safety. I think it’s time that women
in Pakistan also took back our public spaces.