Sitting on the plane from Kuwait to Islamabad, I kept wondering how big an issue wearing a headscarf would be – I am a woman entering a Muslim country after all. Friends who had been to Pakistan several years ago said they had been given bad looks for having their ankles showing and that they wore head scarves everywhere. I had a diaphanous, purple and blue scarf that I had bought in India with me. It was stuffed in my shoulder bag. I finally decided that I would wear the scarf draped around my neck over the light, long sleeved white cotton shirt I had on.
The plane was full of women and children but once I arrived at the Islamabad airport and got in the van with my guide, the women started disappearing. During my brief overnight in Rawalpindi, and later when flying to Skardu in the northeast mountainous region of Pakistan, I once again saw plenty of women and children on the plane. Then, I saw fewer and fewer women on the streets, which caused me some concern.
However, my fears over the “invisible headscarf police,” the past few traveling days were allayed. No one stopped me or gave me dirty looks because I did not have a scarf over my head. Some of the western tourists on the plane to Skardu had head scarves on, but some did not, even though all the Pakistani women did.
On the 7 hour drive to Askole, the remote village at the base of the Baltoro glacier I saw few women. I saw women running from the road, with their heads covered up with their dupattas (the Pakistani version of a head scarf, that is made of a fairly heavy, brightly colored cloth). Again, I saw no women in the village, once I arrived. I was told they were all working in the fields, which began to paint the larger role of women in this society.
On the Baltoro Glacier, function won out over custom. In the lower sandy areas, everyone tended to wear some kind of head covering to keep out the sun. My purple scarf was not the solution. The sun was so strong and the rays so penetrating I needed to wear a thick cap with a cloth covering for the back of my neck. But next time, I may bring a thicker cloth to cover most of my head and neck. At the higher elevations, caps, hats like in any other mountain area, worked. When I returned to Askole, I was able to get a couple of pictures of young girls with dupattas on but only when I had given them pens for school in exchange for some fresh green beans they had picked and their mothers weren’t around to tell them not to.
During the ride back over the Karakorum highway, I decided that there was a bit of a double standard for tourists versus Pakistani women. Eventually, I decided, “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” and I kept my long scarf wrapped around my neck and over my head if I was in a market. My scarf was very light, so it was not too hot or heavy. It also smoothed the way for trying to blend into crowds.
On my stopover in Abu Dhabi before I got my direct flight back home to the U.S., the airport was a 3D catalogue of headscarves and Muslim wear. I saw Saudi women with abayas on (the full black dress) and some with niqabs over their face (black head covering with slits for the eyes). There were some Pakistani with the all too familiar now, shalwar kamiz (pajama like trousers, quite good for the heat and a long shirt covering the torso), and just a variety of hijabs (Head coverings for most Arab women). My uniform scarf worked fine for me and I think I will use it on my next visit to either Pakistan or India.