So, I haven’t written much about what it was like being a woman visiting Pakistan. Generally, I didn’t really notice gender as a factor on the LUMS campus in Lahore — it’s a very liberal campus, and I felt like I could wear basically whatever I wanted, and act just as I normally would.
Colleagues there (including the English department chair, who wore a very cute sleeveless red form-fitting dress the first day) said that it was difficult to get Western professors to visit them in Pakistan, because of fears of violence, etc. That seems a real shame, and I would encourage my colleagues to take any opportunity for academic exchange there if possible. (Apparently it is not as impossible for diasporic Indians to get visas as it used to be, according to the professors I spoke to.)
In the city itself, women are still probably pretty much fine dressing as they want in the tourist areas, though they may get some stares if you have bare legs or arms. In non-tourist areas, they’ll likely get a lot more stares.
One slightly disorienting moment was when we were out in the early evening, and suddenly, there were only men around — I asked, and the students explained, ‘oh, the women are probably mostly at home now, busy taking care of kids, getting dinner ready, etc.’ Which makes sense, but it felt very weird to me, the streets suddenly emptying of women. Not something I’ve experienced before. The men stared more then.
At the Lahore airport too, on arrival, it was all men waiting to pick people up at 2 a.m. when our flight got in, and there were a lot of stares at my bare arms and legs. I was traveling with one of the organizers by that point, and I didn’t feel unsafe, but I imagine some women would have found it quite uncomfortable.
One area that did have an actual restriction was swimming — I like to swim for exercise, and especially with an injured ankle, there wasn’t much aerobic I could do except swim. That was fairly difficult. I could wear my regular one-piece swimsuit (and a swim cap they kindly loaned me because I’d forgotten to bring one), but I was only allowed to use the campus aquatic facility during ‘female swimming times.’
Which are probably justified as being meant to help women stay safe, but are, unsurprisingly, more limited and less convenient than the male swimming times.
It’s fascinating, because here in Oak Park, we’re about to vote on how to fund a major physical education building renovation at our high school, and one thing we’re fixing is combing two separate hundred-year-old pools into one.
(Tangent for locals: We’ll gain a few spectator seats, which will be more accessible, and a diving well, and a slightly larger footprint for the pool, but mostly, we’ll address the massive and wildly expensive leaking of the old pools. This is one of the major things I’m doing while I’m on school board, and I think it’s going to be a significant improvement to the school, and the community.)
The pools were separate in Oak Park because they were separated by gender, and in fact originally, the boys swam naked. Which sounds really hard, actually — puberty is hard enough without your classmates and swim teacher regularly seeing you naked. I’m glad we’ve gotten rid of that as a cultural default, so I guess I’m not against modesty completely.
Although at the same time, there’s Japanese bathhouse culture, and a similar approach I experienced in some parts of the Bay Area, where bathing nude is a common intergenerational thing, with toddlers and children and teens and adults and seniors all in the pool together, and that feels much more…wholesome(?) to me. More likely to lead to greater body acceptance in a community. This stuff is complicated.
Well, at OPRFHS, we’ll have one pool soon, and much improved locker rooms, with private changing options for those students who’d prefer that.
To access the women’s locker room at the LUMS aquatic center, you actually have to walk through the men’s locker room, which strikes me as poor design — given that, I’m not sure anyone would want to do away with separate swimming times. It’s really interesting how structural architecture issues work for or against equity. (Another part of our renovation is putting in more all-gender private restrooms.)
In the end, I did get to swim in Lahore, and I loved it, even though by the time I figured it all out AND managed to have a free slot to swim in a very busy teaching schedule, it was the end of the week and I had a full-on cold, so it was more like swim for ten minutes and then float exhaustedly for another ten.
There were a few other women swimming, but they were at the far end of the pool, and I couldn’t really tell what they were wearing to swim — the woman on lifeguard duty was in a high coverage suit, similar to what you might wear if you’re trying to avoid getting too much sun in the pool. I don’t think anyone wore a bikini, but I wouldn’t really expect that at a school pool where people are coming to exercise.
There was another private gym nearby, apparently, where I could’ve swum for a nominal fee; I didn’t get a chance to explore the details of that.
No conclusions, just pondering.