A space of one’s own

“Your walks are such a contrast to the events in Gujranwala in response to the women’s marathon,” wrote Saneeya Hussain in response to my Personal Political column published in The News on Sunday on 3 April 2005. “I keep thinking Pakistan shd change its name to Absurdistan or some such thing”. (Remember the women’s marathon?)

Since the article is not available on the web anymore I thought I’d post it here. The photo is more recent but since I wrote this piece in 2005, what has changed and what remains the same? 

Seaview beach, early morning. Photo: Beena Sarwar, 2016


A space of one’s own

Beena Sarwar

One of my favourite things to do in Karachi is to go for a walk at Seaview beach early in the morning. When I first started doing this a couple of years ago, concerned friends would ask, “Is it safe?” Or, “Aren’t you scared, walking alone?”

The answer is, yes it is, and no I’m not – any more. But yes, the first time I did it, I admit to being a little nervous. In fact, the first time I walked on that beach was with a friend who lives at Seaview apartments along the beach front. We walked out of her place, crossed the road, and battled the summer evening sea breeze — wind rather – that whipped our hair around our faces, and made our clothes flap wildly around us. My friend Tina and I never did manage to get our act together to join up for a walk once in a while, but my inhibition about walking in that public space had been broken.

Shortly afterwards, when the summer holidays ended, I took to occasionally going there after dropping my daughter to school in the morning, and walking half the length and then back.

It’s not the cleanest beach in the world, but it’s not bad as ‘urban beaches’ go. There are always municipal workers industriously cleaning up at the more commercial half that’s closer to the city. This is where fancy ‘cornice points’ and a portable pizza truck now stand, testimony to the corporatisation of even this urban public beach since the Defence Housing Authorities chased away the performing monkey wallas, horse and camel-ride wallas and peanut and corn-sellers who used to cater to the crowds of families and children who crowd the beach in the evenings.

The reason given was that these monkey wallas and their ilk were making the place dirty. Well, now they’re begging at street corners instead, and the beach is still dirty because people often don’t use the giant dust-bins provided in that half of the beach, which is where the evening crowds gather as it is the most well-lit.

I generally walk on the far end, where there’s less development. It’s not lit up so well at night, so one would have thought there’d be less litter. Some days, actually, it’s quite pristine, but other days the sea washes up a lot of strange things. Or people leave strange things behind. Shoes are the most common… a child’s sandal, a lady’s slipper. Eatables… half a melon, an onion, a half-buried sack of something, or a fruit juice container.

The strangest thing I ever saw when I first started walking there was a ram’s head. Half buried in the sand, with two horns. Some days it was more visible, other days more submerged in the sand. It was there for months.

But mostly, the part of the beach I walk on is washed clean by the sea, so that all you have to contend with are footprints. You can see all the people who were there before you that morning or late last night after the tide went out, if it still hasn’t come back up. Some were bare footed, others wore joggers, or rubber slippers… someone walked by with a limp, or dragging one foot.

At that time of morning, you encounter few other people walking or jogging on the sand – but over the last year, other women have also been visible, in pairs or alone. Sometimes you see a couple or two. One couple I encountered last year (not of the posh Defence variety either) walked with their arms around each other, or holding hands; we exchanged smiles as we crossed and they seemed least embarrassed. In most other countries, this is not something one would even remark on. But in Pakistan, particularly post-Zia Pakistan, such a sight is still rare enough to be memorable.

Come to think of it, a woman walking alone in public is also a rare enough sight, although more and more are now visible in bazaars and at the semi-public parks that are becoming more popular with the urban middle classes. Even rarer is the sight of a woman cycling anywhere – as women of my mother’s generation quite casually used to do until the mid 1960s.

I remember reading about the movement Women Take Back the Night, in which women in some North American cities would come out to ‘reclaim’ spaces that had been denied them by male harassment or lack of safety. I think we in Pakistan should also take back our public spaces.


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