It’s extremely hard to plan a summer wardrobe for Peshawar as it needs to meet two opposing conditions. First, it needs to cover the entire body; and second, it needs to be cool enough to keep one alive in heat of 45 degrees Celsius. I spent hours in London shops and failed to find anything that fitted the bill. In the end I resorted to extreme measures and entered my local Muslim shop which, alongside T-Shirts calling for jihad and Hizbul Tahrir propaganda books, sells an array of full-on hijabs. After careful consideration, and to the delight of the shop assistant, I chose a free flowing three piece hijab that hid everything but my eyes.
I wore my hijab for the full three weeks that I was in Peshawar. The experience taught me a lot about being a woman in that city and about being a hijabi woman in a country that is confused about, and fearful of, its role in the ‘war on terror’.
The first lesson I learnt was that no amount of hijab can suppress lust. Peshawar is one of the places where women are mostly covered in hijab but it’s also a highly lustful city where women are openly touched and harassed on the streets. Women can’t shout or protest because it is their fault for being out in the first place, as one shopkeeper who, ironically, sold fabric for women’s clothing, told me. The other shopkeepers I spoke to in the famous Sader Bazzar all said the same thing. I shuddered and left. I wonder if they felt my fear; they certainly couldn’t see it on my covered face.
The second lesson I learned was that the fact that more women are wearing hijab post- 9-11 is not a sign of female support of the anti-West forces in Pakistan; it is simply a survival mechanism for women who fear the repercussion of being associated with Western ideals. A student at Peshawar University told me that he sees more hijabi women at the university, including his own niece, who cover up to be safe, to remain unknown to the extremists who have thrown acid on the bare faces of college-going women.
The third lesson I learned, is that public reaction to the hijab is a prime example of the confusion and fear that has been created in Pakistan because of the country’s role in the ‘war in terror’. Stranded in Peshawar in early hours of the morning, I tried to hitch a ride with a family who were going towards my side of the town. Their attitude was cold; they barely communicated with me until I sat in their car and removed my hijab. It made me laugh when they told me that they were afraid that I may be a suicide bomber because I was wearing a hijab. To them hijab was a sign of fundamentalism, fanaticism and terror.
My last adventure in my hijab was at Peshawar airport on my way back to the UK where the combination of my hijab and about 40 books on jihad, Islam and the Taliban in my bag earned me an hour’s interrogation about my profession and intentions. The policeman dealing with me was reluctantly doing his job of flicking through my books. When I asked him about what he was looking for he couldn’t answer; he vaguely talked about some list of banned books that was given to them. He is now supposed to stop anyone who looks like ‘trouble’, he told me that he had no problem with me there but he had to make sure that I didn’t take anything ‘dodgy’ out to the UK. In a nutshell, he was supportive or indifferent to my hijab but was instructed to see it as an indicator of ‘trouble’ – though he was so confused about what to do about me if I were ‘trouble’. He wasn’t sure which side was he on, who was he fighting and what for!
As I sat in my freely upgraded first class seat, sipping various incredible refreshments, I took off my hijab, folded it neatly and put it in my bag. I was wondering what that extremist Islamist leader who had praised me for my hijabi modesty would think o me now. My hijab is now in my wardrobe only to be taken out for next Pakistan trip or some politically incorrect fancy dress party! By the way, the hijab didn’t keep me cool or hidden.