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A Space of One's Own

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By Beena Sarwar

One of my favourite 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 Defence 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 not 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.
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