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Guns and glaring stares: a fortnight in Pakistan/Kashmir

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As most of you will know, I was not looking forward to going to Pakistan/Kashmir at all. I can’t even handle Pakistanis in the UK, how would I cope with them in their natural habitat?!

I kept a travel diary and noted any observations throughout my time there.

Please bear in mind that these are only my views based on my experience and are not intended to reflect every Pakistani or Kashmiri. Nor is this intended to be a travel guide; it is simply the narrative of a rather bored, ranty beige lady.

Guns are unavoidable in Pakistan - even I had to get in on the act (mercifully this was not even assembled)

Guns are unavoidable in Pakistan – even I had to get in on the act (don’t worry, this was not even assembled)

11/1/2013: As the passengers boarded the plane, there were continuous announcements, requesting the ‘Khawateen o Hazraat’ (ladies and gentlemen) to claim a blue suitcase. Ten minutes later and still no one had claimed it.  I was beginning to panic slightly – what if it’s going to blow up? I don’t want to die in a plane that has not even taken off surrounded by strangers! A few minutes later I was positively hysterical, screaming in my mind, “khawateen o hazraat will you claim the goddamn suitcase?!” Fortunately the announcements stopped and nothing was blown up.

Later on, I asked my aunty if we would go exploring around the north of Kashmir. She laughed and replied, “Good luck with finding someone to take you!” *sigh* what a ‘holiday’ this was going to be; more like a jail sentence. But I was aware of the disputes that had been taking place around the Line of Control in the Poonch district of Kashmir, which meant that even if, by some miracle, my family had found their sense of adventure, it would have been very difficult to travel there.

12/1/13: Arrived at at Islamabad Airport (I refuse to call it by its new name Benazir Bhutto International Airport) at around 7am. I stepped off the plane only to be greeted with rain – and I thought we had left Manchester behind. The airport is actually located in the city of Rawalpindi and serves as a military airport too, something which, according to a diplomat source of mine, the army is not happy with. Thankfully, the new airport in Islamabad is under construction and due to be completed some time next year. We, that is my aunty, mum, brother and I, had to go to the ‘unaccompanied women and children’ counter at immigration, which, to be honest, made me feel even more vulnerable that I already did. We walked past immigration and I could feel glares of the men boring into me, something that I could not get used to during my stay there. The men in that country just stare, and stare, and stare until you are out of sight. ‘Land of the pure’ my foot.

After we collected our luggage, we made our way out and were greeted by my uncle and his friend. His friend took us to freshen up in his flat in Bahria Town, which is a relatively new development and a short drive from the airport, and fast becoming popular with expatriate Brits, such as my uncle’s friend. At the flat, which was lovely and had all the comforts of living in an English home, my uncle was telling his friend that he wanted to sell the family home in Kashmir (where we would stay for the next few weeks) and possibly buy a property in Islamabad instead. His friend thought it was not such a good idea. “It’s your dad’s home and where he’s buried,” he said. My uncle replied that he could not see his own children coming to Pakistan or to the house in the village.  He had a point. I for sure do not want to go back to that country and I said as much, which is why his friend then told him to take me out and about, “otherwise she won’t come back!” Aside from my grandparents’ graves, I have no other connection to the land, as all my family is in England.

In Pakistan, as my uncle claims, they cannot enforce the law. Every rule, regulation and code is broken there and in India. He also reckons (though I would take it with a pinch of salt) that there is ‘more money per square footage’ in the city of Mirpur, Kashmir, but the people don’t know how to invest their money properly. It was not difficult to see why he would say that. Looking around, people have spent a lot of British money in building lavish homes for themselves and their family (which would stay empty for 11 months of the year), with all the comforts in England inside, while the roads surrounding them are in no fit state to drive on and there are no pavements. Certain parts of Kashmir, especially Mirpur, depend on British money because of ex-pats which is how the city and the surrounding areas are developing but, according to my uncle, the place will stagnate, as the next generation will not go back there.

A typical example of a home built with British money - most of these properties remain empty for most of the year

A typical example of a home built with British money – many of these properties remain empty most of the year

The first thing I demanded when we were closer to home was a sim card, as my previous Pakistani sim, not having been used for over three years, was blocked. I was informed that obtaining a sim now was more difficult, due to the increase in terrorist attacks. Sims can no longer be purchased from the local bazaar (market) but from the network provider, and after showing your Pakistani ID card, the number must then be registered. Great. This meant that I was without any means of communication and could not rely on my friends in England to help pass the time.

The village is in the Bhimber district of Azad Jammu Kashmir, the only region in AJK which consists of plains. Throughout my stay here, it would be very cold, with few spells of sunshine in the morning. Not having packed appropriate clothes or thermals (I packed very last-minute, as I had been trying to get out of going altogether), the nights were extremely cold. However, this has to be one of the safest areas in the whole region – whatever happens in the rest of Kashmir or Pakistan does not really have an impact on the village here, which means one can spend time with the family in peace.

The view from the house in our village

The view from the house in our village

13/1/13: We have satellite TV! Thank goodness for that! I spent most of my time finding out what was going on in the world, but the majority of the news channels were Indian. Their news programmes are very much like their dramas and movies – exaggerated and full of bizarre special effects. The reports are biased and alarmist so I wouldn’t be surprised if the population was constantly on edge, waiting for the next terrorist attack. What saddened me the most was hearing the report of the rape of a woman in the Punjab region of India – women in these countries (yes that includes Pakistan) are simply not safe.

Load shedding, or power blackouts, has become even worse here in the ‘fourth world’ (as my uncle describes it)  since I last came three years ago.  The power is supposed to go at set times, but often the power goes randomly, when you least expect it. At times, when there was power again, it was taken again after ten minutes, which can cause huge disruptions to people’s daily lives. But it is still not as bad as mainland Pakistan apparently, although this was of little comfort when, on a number of occasions I decided to take a shower, the power suddenly went out! There I was, cold, wet and naked (apologies for the disturbing visuals), in the dark bathroom with only a tiny book light to guide me.

The process is supposed to save money and is a response to a situation where the demand for electricity exceeds the power supply capability of the network. I found it hard to believe, given the close proximity of Mangla Dam, which is the sixteenth largest dam in the world. (If you can fathom this system then please comment below)

Interesting fact about Mangla Dam: Over 280 villages and the towns of Mirpur and Dadyal were submerged and over 110,000 people were displaced from the area as a result of the dam being built, something which, according to Ali Baraan, is still affecting people from that region.  Some of those affected by the dam were given work permits for Britain by the Government of Pakistan and, as a result, in many cities in the UK the majority of the ‘Pakistani’ community actually originated from the Dadyal-Mirpur area of the disputed region. So next time you meet a ‘Pakistani’ person in the UK, they are more likely to be from this region in Azad Kashmir.

15/1/13: The nights here are the worst; despite sharing a room with my mum and auntie, my fears are not alleviated after hearing the howls of the jackals all night.

For some reason, the issue of second marriages came up. In the village, there is a growing number of men, in their late 50s and early 60s, who are having second wives. Most pensioners take up golf or fishing in their old age; here, the men take up a younger wife,  younger than even their youngest child. In one case, I found that one of the new wives was just three years older than me. Suddenly, I could feel my breakfast coming right back up. One such man, trying to explain his decision, apparently said that “when we first got married, we were just children, we didn’t know what marriage was, we didn’t know what we were doing. Now we have got the choice to do what we want.” I suppose I see his point. In my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, marriage was a matter of convenience, decided by one’s elders and something you entered into with little or no objection. But what about their first wives? Women do not have the choice of having two husbands at the same time (quite frankly, one is enough), unlike their male counterparts, who can have more than one wife simultaneously.

Personally, I am not in favour of polygamy unless in very, very extreme circumstances and if all parties are happy with it. Most of the time, there really is no need for a man to take another wife. It’s usually done  for very selfish reasons, i.e. the man is bored of his ageing wife (you’re no spring chicken either mate) and because divorce is a taboo, and no one else will want to marry a divorced, middle aged woman, the men instead have co-wives – one to keep mummy happy and one to keep him happy.  The first wife has to put up with her husband frolicking around with a younger, firmer model, while she is left to have to explain to her adult children that their father is having some sort of Muslim mid-life crisis. The funny thing is that Muslim men go on about their ‘right’ to have multiple wives yet fail to fulfill their Islamic obligations, such as praying, giving to charity, etc. They forget all those requirements, but suddenly remember that they can have more than one wife. The first wife is left stranded and the second wife is sometimes kept hidden away. All because these men cannot stand up to their mummies.

18/1/13: It started to rain all day and night, with thunder and lightening, and would continue to do so for the next few days, which meant another day stuck in the house. As the roads become muddy and slippery in the rain, going for a drive to the city down the cliff would have been tantamount to suicide. After fuming for hours on end over being kept under house-arrest, I spent the whole day, along with my aunty, in bed, reading or just sleeping. However, my mum and brother suddenly became quite sick; when my aunty and I got out of bed we experienced feelings of nausea and dizziness. Outside, I collapsed and could not stop shaking. Why were we all feeling so ill? The it hit us – we had had hot coals in the room to keep us warm but had completely forgotten to keep the room ventilated. Effectively, we had almost poisoned ourselves to death. When my uncle found out he was livid and called us all idiots.

It was thundering all night. I have never been scared of thunder, but because of the mountains, the sound of the thunder echoed, which made it even more frightening.

We had a few guests come over, but as it was raining and most of us had decided to stay in bed, I really could not be bothered meeting anyone. Middle aged aunties who ask the same questions, discussing their bunions and latest antics of their daughter-in-laws really is not my cup of coffee. Usually, my uncle would warn me beforehand by announcing, “the biddies are coming, I’d get in your room if I was you.” Unfortunately that day he was nowhere to be seen.

An old lady who had known my late grandmother came to see us. Normally, I find old women boring and I managed to blank out most of what she said, with a John Grisham novel keeping me occupied.  However, what did make my ears prick up was when she began discussing her marriage (what is it with me and marriage, eh).  She was married off at the age of 14 to a much older man who had been previously married to one of her cousins. Her cousin died, hence why she was given to this man in marriage. I assume there were children in the picture, though she did not say – usually in south Asian cultures (and perhaps in the Middle East too), when a woman dies, leaving children behind, the husband will marry the late wife’s sister or another female from that family to help raise the children. In addition to this injustice done to her at such a young age, her husband also used to beat her. My heart went out to her – imagine being married off while you’re still a child, not knowing anything, not knowing who you are marrying, not knowing about relationships or men. I would have been terrified. But I suppose in those days it was common and men and women just got on with it.

21/1/13: My uncle once said that “Pakistanis don’t know how to be diplomatic.” I think, however, that he said that without bearing in mind the people of our village. Diplomacy is how everything runs here. Even if one person is not speaking to another, they are still invited to the wedding or funeral (or any other gathering) just for the sake of saving face. If you are not seen at a gathering then people will talk. “Did you hear, so-and-so wasn’t invited to the wedding,” or “So-and-so didn’t go to funeral, how insolent.”  I know people who have to live there need to do this to maintain harmony, but I found it all so bloody ridiculous. Personally, I do not know how to be diplomatic – if I do not like someone, I just do not speak to them. I cannot be doing with all this acting and pretending, it’s such a nuisance. At one event, the hosts of a gathering were not speaking to three of the guests who had turned up and vice-versa. It was silly! How can you go to someone’s house and not speak with the owners? Again, it was all so save face, but my God what a waste of time.

At one of these gatherings a middle-aged lady came and sat next to me while I was tending to my one-year-old cousin. The lady said: “You know Iram, he used to be so cute before, when he was fair, but now he’s gone so dark because they’ve been sitting him down in the sun.” About a baby for Pete’s sake! What is even more baffling is the lady herself was very dark. At least 95% of the people here are tanned because they are out working in the sun all day. Tip for you all: when you live in a hot climate, chances of you being dark are very high! You cannot live in a hot country and be pale as milk unless you stay within the four walls of your home and not venture out. But here, light features are highly coveted. It is one of the reasons why I am glad that at least my skin is not dark, otherwise the daily taunts over my skin colour would have been unbearable.

As well as Fair and Lovely, it's Fair and Handsome too!

Go away darkies, we only want fair and handsome blokes

22/1/13: We packed our bags today as we were setting off for Lahore, the capital city of the Punjab province. Every Pakistani you meet will remind you of the old saying that if you haven’t been to Lahore you haven’t lived. We reached the city of Mirpur where I was finally able to purchase a sim card. My auntie did not see the point – “you’ve got less than a week left, why bother” – but I needed to communicate with the outside world. And I had had enough of sharing her phone, knowing she would probably read my messages. Not that they were risque or anything – most of my messages were declarations of boredom and irritation of being here. Getting a sim was a bit of a mission. My uncle took me to the network provider where there was a huge crowd already inside. As I mentioned before, the increase in terrorist attacks meant that one has to register for a sim card personally and go through a rather long and tedious process. I had to ring a number and answer questions such as “is the number for you?”, “are you speaking on behalf of anyone?” and bizarrely, “what is your mother’s full name?”

Whenever we go to Pakistan, we always travel to Lahore too. Usually, we travel by a hired van or car. This time, we took a coaster. The way my uncle had raved on about it, I was expecting a long, air conditioned, luxurious coach. It was essentially a converted van with a dozen seats, in which we were packed like sardines. After an hour and a half, my entire lower body had become numb.

On the journey I noticed many school girls and college girls wearing niqabs (face veil) as well as headscarves. In our village, a niqab stands out like a sore thumb, so imagine my surprise when I saw a veiled lady just hours earlier. My auntie said it was part of their uniform, though I found that hard to believe. Why would a niqab be a mandatory part of the uniform? A friend later clarified for me that in some government schools, the headscarf is a compulsory part of their uniform (though many girls here wear it anyway). The headscarf is not mandatory by law in Pakistan, but it is worn by many and in some areas you will not see a single woman without it, or even without a full face veil, and in government and official buildings, the women who work there will wear a headscarf, so in a way there is the pressure to wear one.

It did lead me to wonder: does wearing a headscarf ensure better gender relations? Does it protect women from unwanted glances from men? I remember when we went to Auriga Bazar in Lahore, a market-place run by Pashtuns, the men there were leering over several women, including myself, with such a dirty gaze. They stared, and stared, as though they had never seen a woman before, although given that many of their wives and women were probably confined to the four walls of their homes, most likely wearing a burqa when venturing out, for them it probably was a rare glimpse of a woman’s face and hair. It was only out of principle that I did not cover my head – maybe I should have, who knows, but I refused to be bullied into wearing a headscarf because of some drooling me. At the same time, I cannot blame some women who, when going to that particular bazar, wear long chadors, often covering half their face with the fabric to avoid the leering gaze of the market men. It made me feel uncomfortable, so sometimes I’m not surprised that women cover up.  Is this then why men stare inappropriately when a woman is not dressed to fit in with the norm? Or are there deeper, underlying issues there?

Does covering up protect women or does it re-enforce this idea that a woman must cover in order to go about her daily business without being harassed or molested? Does it give men and women appropriate boundaries and a framework within which they must, and should, live, or does segregation and veiling exacerbate tensions and misunderstandings between the two sexes? (I would like to hear your views below)

A hair advert...showing no hair!

A hair advert…showing no hair!

24/1/13: I love this city! It makes a change from the sleepy village environment.

Lahori street art

Lahori street art

The girl, whose family with whom we’re staying, is surprisingly quite talkative and more liberal than I imagined. When I first met her a few years ago, I assumed that she was very quiet and dull. First impressions can often be quite deceptive. It did not take much for her to open to me  – I think she was ready to burst. Her parents are stricter than I had seemed them to be. Living in a city, I imagined thy would be quite open minded. But as the saying goes, you can take the person out of the village, but not the village out of the person. The girl, (I’ll call her Zahra) is not allowed to watch television, except news channels, watch movies, or even read books!

At the moment, Zahra is doing her masters’ degree in I.T.  Her university is about one hour away from home, so she leaves the house at 6.30am each day and returns quite late in the evening. She asked her father to let her live in the hostel, mostly for convenience and because she is the only girl o her course who still lives at home. Predictably, her father said no.

Zahra was studying medicine some years ago but found the course dull so she decided to change her course. Her father did not approve of this decision, but there was little else that he could do. Her parents told her to stop studying after completing her undergraduate course, but she wanted to continue studying – she wants to do a PhD and eventually start working. Daddy dearest does not approve and instead wants her to get married, probably with a boy from their village with whom she will have little in common.

When talks of married come up, parents come out with the classic line: “We need to fulfill our obligation as your parents.” As long as a girl’s marriage is sorted, that’s it – end of one’s parental duties. I suppose that’s fair enough, wanting to see your children settled and married, but isn’t educating your children just as much of an obligation? Girls are raised primarily to become wives and mothers – anything else is just an extra. So what if a girl is educated, can she make a good wife is what is more important.

I could resonate with some of the stories she told me of her fellow classmates. Some of the girls who live in the hostel do not like going back home to their parents because of the crap they have to deal with. One girl, a close friend of Zahra’s, goes home every so often only to find a rishta (potential suitor) waiting for her, and in-laws asking questions such as, “can you cook? What can you cook?” and “will you be able to look after our son?” etc. If that was me, I would have responded with “your grown-arse son should be able to take care of himself without hanging on to mummy’s apron strings” but fortunately my own family has never put me in that awkward situation. I do not know how people do that – if I was put through the farce of making tea for prospective in-laws and their beloved son, while adorned in a sparkling salwar kameez (no western clothes allowed) being judged like a prize-cow, I would run out of the door faster than you could say ….

Anyhow, I digress. Zahra wants to move out as soon as she gets a job, but given how her father is, that would be nothing short of a miracle.

What makes her situation even more difficult is that her mother contracted TB a few months ago, which took me by surprise. I did not think that anyone in this day and age, especially the more affluent, can get TB but clearly I was wrong. Her eyesight has completely gone – she can only see blurred shapes, which means that she cannot do many household tasks without any help. Over dinner one evening, she was saying how she is trying to find a second wife for her husband, as he needs a wife who can look after the house.  I assumed that she was joking – after all, what heartless man would take another wife while his first wife is ill – but apparently she was serious. Her husband, however, told us a few days later (on our way back to the village) that he could not do that to her. “She looks after my both my parents, takes them to the toilet, cleans them and feeds them too. In addition to that, both her parents are dead and so are her brothers. She has no one left in this world except me – how could I possibly do that to her?”  My sentiments exactly.  I hope he was being sincere and not just saying this for our benefit.

If there’s anything Lahoris know, it’s how to eat. I awoke each morning to be greeted with a rather lavish breakfast feast, too much for my delicate English stomach. Parathas, channey, halwa poori, stacks of fried, sweet bread, you name it – all the, er, delicacies of the Punjab were laid out for us. It is not wonder that many Lahori people are on the large side, eating such heavy food and sleeping most of the day, only venturing out after dark. I managed a fried egg with toast and a glass of orange juice. It would have been nice to have washed it down with a nice, hot cup of black coffee, but this is Pakistan – they only do tea here. Coffee drinkers are marginalised, our desires and needs suppressed. Here, “I don’t drink tea” is translated to “I’m not in the mood for tea right now” – they simply cannot believe that there is a person out there who does not drink tea.

Masoom's Cafe - I highly recommend their apple-pie shake

Masoom’s Cafe – I highly recommend their apple-pie shake

We ventured out shortly after breakfast. There was a protest in front of Governor’s House, staged by the PML-N party over a murder in Karachi just a few days earlier. There seemed to be more policemen than protestors though.

The one thing I dislike about Lahore is the sewage system. In certain parts of the city, one can expect to get a whiff of smog mixed with the smells of the open drains. My theory is that this is precisely why there are so many veiled women in Lahore – to protect their delicate noses from the noxious fumes. I found this report on the Lahori drainage system really enlightening and explains what causes such problems in the city.

My mum wanted to visit Daata Darbar, which is one of the oldest Muslim shrines in the sub-continent. Sufi shrines can expect to be visited by both Hindus and Muslims, but since partition most visitors have been Muslims. On special occasions, such shrines will be decorated with bright lights. Apparently, whatever you pray for at Daata Darbar is granted. I can’t say I believe any of that. I also find it amusing how Pakistani Muslims make fun of their Hindu neighbours for worshipping idols, but they do something similar themselves at these Sufi shrines. A few Pakistanis have told me that this is not that case, that no one prays to the saints, they just pray to God there for their wishes to be granted. If that is the case though, why are only prayers granted at such a shrine? Surely God answers your prayers regardless of where you choose to pray? My mum and auntie asked Zahra’s father if they had gone to pray at Daata Darbar for his wife’s eyesight to be restored. Zahra and I rolled our eyes at each other.

We had the opportunity to visit Daata Darbar the following day. I went because, well, it was a day out. All the phone networks were down as it was Eid Milad ul-Nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Apparently, terrorists in the past have used mobile phones to detonate bombs, hence why the decision was made to close down all mobile phone networks in the major cities.  Our relatives in Kashmir had been trying to contact us all day with no success – the networks were still working there.

For several nights, because of the religious holiday, mosques were brightly lit, with the sounds of prayers and religious music being heard all across the city.

Because of the bomb blasts in 2010, security at Daata Darbar was tight, meaning we could not take any bags or even mobile phones inside the shrine. However, when inside, I noticed a few women using their mobile phones! Clearly they had managed to sneak them in, probably inside their bras (no one checks there). The security women were something else though – after we had generously donated money at the shrine, probably a con (so I’m cynical-sue me), the female guards came after us and asked us to ‘donate’ to her. My aunty told the lady that we had no money on us, having left our bags in the car. However, two minutes later she came after us. “Baji (sister) do you want me to come and wait for you outside the car?” Er, no we bloody don’t thank you! My aunty managed to get rid of her eventually.

News crew near Daata Darbar

News crew near Daata Darbar

ARY News Channel capturing the Milad gathering

ARY News Channel capturing the Milad gathering

Gatherers for Milad - we spotted one woman, though it may have been a mirage

Gatherers for Milad – we spotted one woman, though it may have been a mirage

We also went to see Badshahi Mosque, or the ‘Royal Mosque’, which was built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It is also the second largest mosque in Pakistan, the largest being the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. The Tomb of the poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who is widely regarded as having inspired the Pakistan Movement, is located at the entrance of the Badshahi Mosque.

Allama Iqbal's tomb

Allama Iqbal’s tomb

A Sikh temple, Gurdwara Dera Sahib, is also situated near the mosque. The gurudwara was built by the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the memory of Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth guru, and is a major Sikh pilgrimage site.  It is also Lahore’s largest GurdwaraI wanted to go inside but we were told that it was not possible. Why, I am not sure. I assume maybe it is only open for Sikh people, which goes against the principles of inclusion which Sikhism is supposed to promote.

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi


The gurudwara is visible here The gurudwara is visible here

Naturally in the mosque, I draped my dupatta over my head. I was the poster girl for modesty that afternoon. Unfortunately, it did not stop some men from gawping. I think this is a disease prevalent in the sub-continent – the people there just stare at you until you are out of their sight. I came to the conclusion that people here stare no matter what.

At Badshahi Mosque

At Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

But this did not stop me from enjoying the sites.  From inside the courtyard, Minar-e-Pakistan,  or “Tower of Pakistan”,  is visible. The tower is constructed on the site where, on 23 March 1940, the Muslim League passed the Pakistan Resolution demanding the creation of Pakistan. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Minar-e-Pakistan – I just had to make do with seeing it from the distance, within the walls of the Badshahi Mosque.

From here one can get a glimpse of Minar-e-Pakistan

Minar-e-Pakistan in the distance
Minar-e-Pakistan in the distance
The closest I got to Minar-e-Pakistan!

The closest I got to Minar-e-Pakistan!

Photo2810 Photo2812





Photo2840 Photo2844

Incidentally, Heera Mandi, or “Diamond Market”, i.e. the red-light district, is very close to the mosque and other religious places too. But, ahem, I am sure this is coincidental…

A glimpse into the famous red-light district

A glimpse into the famous red-light district

27/1/13:  We were informed that the family’s driver, whom they hire regularly, especially when we come to visit them, had had another girl. He and his wife were trying for another boy, making it a grand total of four girls and one boy. Why they wanted another boy is beyond me. One of his daughters had received a scholarship to study at university. In a country that spends less than 2% of its budget on higher education and almost 20% on the military, a scholarship for poor families is a godsend. That, along with allocating enough funds for a wedding, having a daughter in this country is seen as a burden.

Two days before our flight back to England, we had to go back to the village first. I was sad to see the back of Lahore, but I consoled myself with the fact that it was not long before I was finally back in England.

On the way to the village, we passed Mangla Cantt, an army garrison near Mangla Dam in the Jhelum District of Pakistan. During the construction of Mangla Dam, several villages were evacuated to build residential colonies and offices. According to Zahra’s father, who had kindly offered to drive us back, “the army just seize a piece of land that they like and occupy it.” Having observed several soldiers around our village and the surrounding areas, I was rather hard-pressed to know exactly what they do all day.

Mangla Cantt

Mangla Cantt


29/1/13: (writing on the plane)

I went to a house where I came across two fellow British girls – one was 17 and one was 16. The 16-year-old sat down with us and, when asked, insisted she was having the time of her life. Readers: I had to force down the glass of coke which had been given to me in order to stop a sarcastic comment coming out of my mouth. You will be pleased to know that I was the model of restraint and dignity (oh shut up).  When asked what she did all day, she replied: “Nothing, just watch TV, hang around with my cousins.” I thought, the how could you possible be having such a good time doing nothing?

I later found out that she had been there for 11 months too! 11 months! I had been there for two and a half weeks and was ready to jump off a cliff! The reason why she was practically a prisoner there, along with her sister, was because “she had been messing about” (code for being caught with a guy) . They were both getting married to their first cousins, who live in the same house where they are staying. Disgusting? You bet. I doubt that this was their choice – it was written all over the face of the girl who sat down with us. I wonder if she was being forced, or if she had, like many, accepted her fate.

This will always continue. In the future, such marriages will not be as common but they will still happen. Because of the fact that in some instances entire families from the same village/town will move to the same area in the UK, this attitude of ‘what people will say’ continues and the people will bring their way of thinking with them and refuse to move forward with the time. What is funny is how some of the homes int he village have changed. They are plush, decorated and fitted with all the modern conveniences and en-suites in every bedroom (it was obscene almost). Yet the people have not moved forward with those homes. Bringing spouses from abroad continues this cycle of tradition. It is no wonder that some British Asians can feel confused, torn as to what their identity is.

I came across another British girl who told me that she was enjoying her stay in the village (what is wrong with people?!). Her brother got married to a slightly older woman (cousin of course) here, last year. “He was really  happy, he didn’t want to come back,” she told me. This was not quite like the version that my auntie had recanted to me.  “He couldn’t bloody get out of there fast enough,” she said, and he did not even want to get married. His wife was a teacher – she stopped after she got married (of course). She is now learning English so that she can join her husband in the UK – I bet he can’t wait.

During our conversations, she revealed that the new marriage rule, whereby a British citizen needs to earn £18.5k in order to bring a non-EU spouse from overseas to the UK, is being appealed. Apparently, the Asians in Britain think this rule is ‘too unfair ‘ mostly because most of us don’t earn that much. We both hoped that this law would stay in place. “Thank God they decided to do this,” she said. I concur! This has to be the only decent thing the Coalition has actually done – and I don’t say that often.

I managed to get this confirmed with a solicitor later on- the £18.5k rule is being challenged. But this law is certainly a step in the right direction. I did wonder though, what about the two young girls who were being married off? How on earth would they get their husbands to join them in the UK, considering that they have no qualifications and are not even working? Unless they are going to stay there in the village permanently, though that is very unlikely.

I was happy to be finally going to the airport and saying goodbye to the place. I had had to sit on my suitcase to close it. I was hoping that the staff at the airport would not open my luggage. But they did-sod’s law. Only my suitcase was opened – I’ve never been more embarrassed. My clothes were spilling out, my unmentionables there for the whole world and his two wives to see. What was worse was that after we had had our luggage checked, another airport official stopped us and told us that we needed to have our bags checked. We informed him that we had just had our suitcases checked, but he would not take no for an answer. He was clearly after a bribe and , out of the corner of his mouth, told us to slip his some money discreetly. If it had been up to me, I would have yelled the place down and embarrassed him in front of everyone, but my mum decided to just pay the man. Corruption is rife – many British expatriates have complained that they are routinely hassled and disrespected. In fact, a gentleman who I was sat next to on the plane was telling me that he refused to bribe one official and instead went to ‘complaints’ department.  The official there, after being told how the man had been mistreated, simply said: “It’s nothing to worry about.”

Here, it is still a man’s world, and a rich man’s world at that.


When I visited Pakistan and Kashmir in 2009  I loved it – the mountain scenery used to take my breath away, but now – nothing. I felt absolutely nothing. This is probably why I cannot see myself marrying anyone from Pakistan or from my grandparents’ village, because if I do, I will have to go back there regularly, and that is something that I really do not want to do.  I must sound so heartless and as though I’m turning my back on my culture and people, and I know for a fact that many Pakistanis reading this will not like what I have written. Their experiences will be different to mine, they will enjoy what time they spend in that part of the world, but for me it’s completely different. My connection to this place died when my grandparents passed away. Now, I am sad to say, I just feel that there is nothing to bring me back here again.

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