As I flipped through the recent issue of Us Magazine, flashes of the past illuminated the dusty recesses of my mind, like studio strobes in a television studio. My mind was pulled back into another universe that revolved around a clingy but optimistic and determined 20-year-old who had not figured out her purpose in life. But, as fate had it, the winds of change swept my life in its path, and Life, with her capital letter and dignified simplicity was never the same anymore. It seems that by giving a girl a kaleidoscope, black-and-white Life was doing her bit to usher me into modernity and colour, a whole new world, a world so beautiful that there was no looking back for me afterwards.
Travelling changed my life; it is as simple as that. They say that you can learn about different cultures by travelling to places, but travelling taught me more about myself than anyone else. It widened my perspective; helped me become more accepting of other beliefs, ideologies, and lifestyles, and most importantly, it taught me to love myself and my body.
A new perspective on life
Back in university, like many other girls in my class, a private van would pick up and drop me off. If I had ever wanted to go anywhere else, like the shops or the hospital, my father or brother would accompany me to and from the venue. I thought that was maybe how life is supposed to be. It is only when I had experienced an alternative way of living that I started questioning my previous lifestyle. During my time in Canada, Germany and the U.S., nobody stared at me or passed nasty comments as I walked by alone. I could go wherever and whenever I wanted to!
However, when I returned to Pakistan, it began to hurt me more than ever to realise that the country is sinking below the waterline with a barrage of social problems hitting her from all directions. From the scourge of poverty, the stink of corruption, the madness of extremism to what-not! Almost half of Pakistan’s population – her womenfolk – sits back at home, not because they want to, but because they don’t have a choice. There’s no law restricting free mobility of women in Pakistan, but the harassment that they face on streets or while taking public transportation have limited their movement. Those who can, drive private vehicles, which is rather expensive. Or, they travel with a male chaperone.
Since I could not take it any longer, I decided to launch the Freedom Traveller (TFT), an online platform to connect and empower female travellers, especially from countries where freedom of movement for women is highly restricted. On TFT, women of all nationalities and beliefs could actively network, share knowledge and resources, and map their experiences during their travels. That is the least I could do, considering the resources that I had. I felt that if women read about other women who are courageous enough to travel alone in their communities or across borders, other females would be encouraged to follow suit.
Freedom is an abstract quality that mature minds acknowledge exists. It is something you can talk, write, or think about, but if you have not actually experienced it, you cannot feel her essence. I developed a strong desire to help women experience what it really means to be free because I have been freed from the grinding restriction of mobility that my life had suffered. Enabling women to be independent would have an positive impact on the country’s economy, too.
I also knew that I could not go about preaching the message of freedom if I did not practice it myself. That could be the reason why I had learned to drive – so I could move about more freely in Pakistan. Occasionally, I go for a jog and ride a bicycle around my neighborhood but, in my heart, I know that it is never as comfortable as it is abroad, because every time I venture out I sense creepy eyes boring into me. But, that is not an excuse to give up. To change, I have to be the change, the flag bearer of the coming revolution, the freedom rider of this century!
I have promised to challenge myself every summer for the next ten years. This year, for instance, I cycled all the way from Muenster to Aachen, Germany – some 200km, to be precise! I did it to prove to every female around the world that there is no one stopping them from achieving their dreams. The unashamedly ecstatic waves of pleasure I had felt riding a bicycle, accompanied with a great sense of accomplishment, cannot be simply put into words.That is why I am not even going to describe it, because you should try it.
More accepting of others
In Pakistan, I lived in a small bubble of my own, a bubble which revolved around the few individuals to whom I owed my existence. That bubble has been burst with the injection of travelling. Travelling introduced me to people from various backgrounds and cultures. I now have friends from all over the world. It didn’t matter if we didn’t speak the same language, ate the same food, or wear the same clothes. Our differences gave big way to our similarities; our diversity connected and united us. I learned to be more respectful of others, to listen more, and to talk less.
One of the most beautiful encounters I had included a German woman named Carina Schmid. We met briefly at an international gathering in Austria. A year later, she invited me to Germany for an internship at her organisation. I remembered keeping at a distance from her because I was too scared to bare my heart to her. Little did I know that “Cari”, as I fondly call her, would turn out to be my biggest confidante, and my family outside Pakistan.
Travelling holds for me other non-utilitarian benefits, of course – it taught me to love myself. As the more I travelled, the most I realised that circumstances change, people come and go, but one thing that remains unchanged is my relationship to myself. As the old saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. I knew I could never be at peace with my soul if I lost the emotional tools with which to stabilise this volatile relationship.
My roommates in the U.S.A., Chenxi and Cheyenne, fortuitously introduced me to exercise one day. Till then, all I had known about exercise was that it is a widely-known and practiced phenomenon for flexing your limbs and maintaining nippy heels. With time, however, it became an essential part of my life. It taught me to treat my body with the dignity and respect that it rightfully deserves. I also took up yoga, and felt closer to myself in ways I could not have imagined before.
Finally, I would like to admit that this journey of self-discovery has not been easy. The deviations from the regular life path of a 24-year-old girl of Pakistani heritage in the land of the pure have been remarkable by any standards of Pakistani society, but if I were to be given a letter informing me that I were to return to square one, I would burn the letter ! Today, I may be burdened with a lifelong mission of promoting gender equality, but I am also blessed with a purpose. And as they say, a life without purpose is, well, pointless.
Originally published in Us Magazine, 05/09/2014: http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=8861&magId=9.