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
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
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
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