The Amazon of Peshawar

In which an Englishman explores the frontiers of feminism  

“GTR,” said my Afghan driver, swinging into the press of motor rickshaws, Mercedes trucks, bicycles, buses, broken-down pickups, brand new Japanese sedans, and buffalo carts burdened with sugarcane that throng Peshawar's main thoroughfare. "GTR—Government Transfer Road." Pedanticism struggled with my instinct for politeness, and won. "Surely not," I heard myself saying. "Grand Trunk Road." Three Pakistani voices from the back seat lent me support. "Yes, the English gentleman is right: GTR—Grand Trunk Road." Had they been raised on Kipling too? Kipling cut no ice with my Afghan. He leaned harder on his horn, which is to the North-West Frontier what stoplights are to the rest of the world, hissed "Government Transfer Road" under his breath, slid me a glance that promised decapitation if I strayed into the Tribal Area, and accelerated into the traffi

The streets of Peshawar are dense with women in strictest purdah, which means that every inch of their skin is hidden from public gaze. Not always quite every inch: there are degrees of adjustment of the chaddah—the veil that women wear—so that sometimes it covers everything but the eyes, sometimes only the hair, and sometimes a corner is pulled above the shoulders, to be held in the teeth, a sort of token purdah conceded by the wearer who needs to bargain or talk to a friend. But the general rule is full purdah, and for many that means the complete outfit, with but a strip of gauze across the eyes to indicate whether the woman is coming or going. Clearly, the occupant must embody the principle of submissive femininity as completely as her husband personifies masculine domination. At least, how is the outsider to discover otherwise, since the one person he can be certain of not meeting in Peshawar is a Pathan (the Pathans being the largest and fiercest of the tribes that straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border) of the opposite sex?

Not quite true. This visiting Englishman did manage to clap eyes on some unveiled Pathan women, in the unlikely surroundings of the Peshawar Club. That former bastion of Britishness, from which all Indians were excluded almost until the last day of the Raj, had in the period of my stay in the city only one English member, who happened to be myself. (My automatic admittance, without inquiry or scrutiny, was the sole concession accorded to my status as a cidevant sahib.) The occasion was the club garden party, held to raise funds—again, the incongruity jangled—for Ethiopian famine relief. I might have been present at an English village fête. Tea and cucumber sandwiches circulated, small girls in party dresses moved about selling raffle tickets, and clutches of polite-spoken ladies, with unwilling husbands in tow, exchanged gossip on the well-mowed lawn. None, of course, spoke to me. But in delightfully indirect admission of my presence they broke into English when I strayed within earshot.

How very much I wished I might have joined in their conversation, or in conversation with any Pathan woman. Just before I left Peshawar, my wish was granted. One of the international aid organizations I visited was run by that rare bird a Pathan divorcée. The daughter of a senior civil servant, she had married, against her parents' wishes, outside the circle of cousins from which Pathan girls are given husbands. The marriage had not worked, but instead of returning to the family circle to endure the I told you so, she had decided on independence and had found a job. Her strictures on the Pathan man's treatment of Pathan women were both violent and very funny, her flights of denunciation all the more striking because of her magnificent good looks and beautifully modulated university English. The chauvinism of fathers, the vapidity of even the most sensible mothers when it came to marrying daughters, the insensitivity and possessiveness of husbands, were condemned in torrents of contempt that would have made the most extreme American feminist sound moderate. I heard it all with rapt attention, scarcely intruding a comment or a question even when I found space to do so. Eventually the flow relented and I sensed that she invited a response. "Are you really saying that you want the same rights as English or American women?" I heard myself ask. Her expression exuded derision. I had missed the point altogether. Well, what did she want? "The same rights as Pathan men, of course!" What—total independence, the duty of revenge, the ritual of the blood feud, fighting, guns? A hint of approval flickered in the depths of dark and beautiful eyes. I had said the right thing. "Yes," she answered. "Guns."

Alexander the Great believed that he had met the Amazons in these parts. No wonder the Russians, trying to subdue the Pathan resistance just across the border in Afghanistan, are discovering that they are locked in conflict with a warrior race.