A Change in Perspective: My Visit to Sialkot, Pakistan

Here in my birth city of Sialkot, Pakistan about 90% of women wear traditional Islamic clothing (hijab with jilbab) while the rest wear the traditional shalwar kameez with some wearing the hijab with it and others not. So it’s relatively a very conservative city.

A few days ago I went to the marketplace with my mom and we came across a woman who was dressed very Western (small tight shirt and tight pants). She was clearly dressed outside the norm of her surrounding culture. She was sticking out like a weed and everyone could point her out. No one said anything and just let her be even though there was this feeling of discomfort and disagreement in the atmosphere (though some men were checking her out as well).

This made me realize how in the West it’s exactly the opposite. The woman in the Islamic traditional clothing is the one sticking out and the “odd ball”. She is the one from whom others feel discomfort because she is dressed outside the cultural norm. They may let her be but there is an atmosphere of discomfort and disagreement with her.

It made me think how similar humans are in their behavior. We point fingers at other cultures but behave exactly the same way in a different context. Also that most people, even when they disagree, will allow people to just be.

This is not to say we shouldn’t discuss our differences but that dialogue must consist of mutual respect.

Story of a Poor Afghan Girl in Pakistan

In the West, I always find Muslim relief organizations using images of poor children to raise money. I’ve always wanted to speak to them, to understand where they came from, and how they ended up in their plight. Coincidentally, during my visit to Pakistan I ran into three sisters (ages 7, 9, 10) and decided to have a 20-30 min conversation with them. They were selling coloring books car to car for $50 rupees ($0.50 U.S. dollars). They caught my attention when they were chowing down a plate of food that was donated to them as if they hadn’t eaten in a while.

I spoke to the oldest, Farzana, and this is her story:

“My family and I migrated from Afghanistan about a year ago due to war and poverty. Our father is old and sick and cannot work. I have an older sister that helps my parents and a baby brother. I have an uncle here as well but he doesn’t really help us because he barely makes for his own kids.

We used to have a donkey which we used to carry things from place to place for cash but it died a while back. Now we sell these books which we buy for $30 rupees and sell for $50 rupees. At first we were begging but then our parents said that is not honorable and to sell something. We make about 700 rupees a day ($7 US).

We used to go to school that was close to our old house but then a policeman came and knocked it down including our house. He said this is not our country and to go back to Afghanistan where we belong (there is very strong racism against Pashtun people in Pakistan). We tried to tell him that we are poor and helpless but he didn’t care. So we were forced to move and abandon education. I cried a lot at first when the school was destroyed.

Most people here are polite to us but some are rude as well.”