As I picked my way carefully around the rocks on a trail that meandered in and out of a dry streambed I marveled at two of my hiking companions in front—the two who resembled apparitions in burqas gliding over the rough terrain with ease. Clad in burqas or not, the sight of women hiking is far from usual in the mountains of Swat valley in northern Pakistan.
In much of Pakistan, but especially in its northern areas, culture dictates that women can neither be seen nor heard; their place is in their homes. Women who go out—for work or education—always wear either all-encompassing burqas and hijabs or large chaddars to cover their heads, the lower half of their faces, and their bodies.
They live in a valley studded with the remains of ancient civilizations and history dating back to pre-history, where mountains spilling down in waves of granite and green offer solitude, beauty and nature. But for the women of Swat all that might as well belong to another universe. Their world revolves around home, school or work (for some), children, and relatives.
But one day in spring this year four Swati women fulfilled a long-held desire to go on a hike. And on that day in March I joined them. The group, all acquaintances, also included a young boy, and four men, the presence of males being de rigueur.
We hiked up a narrow and nearly empty valley, which pressed close against mountains with flanks painted in a mix of pale and deep green foliage. This valley, though not far from main cities of the larger Swat valley, felt remote. We passed one dwelling at the start of our trail and saw another at the end, on a gentle slope across from the remains of a 3rd century CE Buddhist monastery, our destination and our turning point.
Hiking is part of my life in Alaska. The men who were in our group also hike, sometimes on days-long treks to places that are beyond the reach of many, even in Swat. But for local women, hiking, is a no-go, not within the norm and forbidden. The norm is home, work, school, relatives, shopping, maybe an outing with family or women friends.
A group of Swati women out with men—and especially “ghair mard,” men other than their brothers, fathers, or husbands—was indeed unusual.
But on that day Rehmania Aman, Neelam Chattan, Gulranga Ali, and Shaista Hakim defied cultural norms to experience nature and to revel in their shared heritage that goes back more than two millennia. All in their mid-twenties and well educated, they are law students, educators, social activists, with Shaista holding the distinction of being first female journalist in Swat.
It was the first hike for all four women. What many of us in the West take for granted was a big deal—a very big deal—for them.
Their action, while not revolutionary, represented the changes seeping into Swat, where women face greater obstacles than those in the larger urban areas of Pakistan. They had to contend with their families’ opposition, and their permission to go hiking was hard-won, coming after cajoling and arguing with mothers, fathers, and elder siblings.
“My mother and elder brother worried about my safety because we were going to a remote location and in a group that included “ghair mard,” (men outside their immediate families),” Gulranga recalled.
“Even before I asked her if I could go on the hike, I knew my mother’s answer, ‘Log kya kahengay’ (what would people say),” Neelam said. Every woman in Pakistan has heard that phrase at some point of her life. It is the sharpest arrow in the arsenal that Pakistani parents use to keep their daughters close, to keep them chaste for marriage.
The families couldn’t understand why their daughters wanted to do something that was not acceptable to them and to others. The idea of visiting ancient Buddhist ruins also mystified them. Neelam’s mother told her that such places held “nothing but piles of stones.” Neelam knew a little about her rich history that predates Islam in Swat, but her mother, like the majority of people in Swat, knew nothing. That history is not taught in schools and only few individuals have an interest in knowing about it or preserving what is left of it in Swat.
But all four had somehow wrested permissions from their parents and elder siblings for the hike. The presence of two of Swat’s respected, well-known local journalists probably helped. One of them, Fazal Khaliq, who writes about social issues, culture and society for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest paper, helped organize the hike.
My own presence was reassuring, Shaista mentioned to me. After four visits to Swat in the last five years I count many people there—men and women—as friends. I am told I have won their trust and respect. My age and status as an outsider gave me freedom that most women there lack. “People won’t criticize you because you are our guest and we know you care about us,” Shaista said.
The idea of a hike that included women took roots a few months before I arrived in Swat. One day in Anchorage, while scrolling through my Facebook page, I saw a post from Fazal. He had posted a link to his newspaper article about a recent hike. It included a photo of a few young men examining a rock face decorated with paintings, created about 1000 BCE. The photo held no surprise for me. It looked like many he often posted: men and young boys out on a trail, sitting by a lake, climbing a mountain, admiring the remains of old Buddhist sites, but nary a female for miles.
I gazed at the photo a while longer and felt a rising resentment. I wondered why no school girls or young women ever get a chance to go on outings to examine archeological sites or to hike to a scenic little lake or waterfall. I commented on the post. “Nice story, Fazal. Any girls on this trek?” His answer was not a surprise either, “No girls this time.”
I pounced on his “this time.” I was not about to let the matter rest and I pressed on, “I hope you and others will do whatever’s necessary to remedy this oversight. Take only a group of girls with a female teacher or two. I think it’s only fair that girls should also have a chance to see such places and be cognizant of the rich history they have inherited.”
My annual trip to Pakistan was coming up. Fazal and I had already discussed a hike or two to sites of Swat’s ancient Buddhist culture. “We could arrange a hike with a few women,” Fazal countered. We both knew that in Swat, like the rest of Pakistan, the increasing use of social media now allowed men and women an interaction they lacked otherwise. Some of our female Facebook friends, after seeing Fazal hiking and trekking photos, also complained about not being included in such outings.
The day for the hike arrived about a week after I returned to Swat. We planned to gather at my hotel and leave around 9 am. Just before 9, the front desk called to tell me that my friends awaited me. I hurried out and got the first of several surprises of that day.
As far as our attire went we were a motley group, with the men either in Pakistani or Western clothes. My clothing for that day’s excursion was a version of the local dress—a pair of hiking pants, a short tunic, and in deference to local customs, a gossamer black chiffon scarf around my neck.
The other women, as expected, wore Pakistani clothes—loose tunics, trousers, and scarves that also covered their heads but seeing two of them in burqas startled me—not the most practical garb for a hike in a rough terrain on a day when the weather forecast called for temperatures into the high 70s to low 80s. Gulranga, one of the two in a burqa, did not cover her face, but Rehmania concealed hers behind a hijab that left only her eyes exposed.
Many of my female friends and relatives in Karachi wore burqas to avoid the gaze of strangers when they were out and about, but often removed them in professional or social settings. I thought was that once we reached the trail the two women would feel comfortable and put away their burqas.
Crowded into two cars, we headed south of Swat’s main urban communities toward the smaller Najigram valley. We speeded along the main north-south road, the car swerving and braking to dodge rickshaws, jeeps, trucks, buses, cyclists, carts, pedestrians and animals that ventured into our path. From the time we started and until we turned away onto a smaller byway, the road was one long bazaar.
The traffic fell away. The concrete phalanx of shops, small factories, and houses flanking the main road ended. Now open spaces filled with fruit trees and cultivated fields dominated the landscape. Our road narrowed, we drove by a patchwork quilt of greens, pinks and white. Pale shafts of light stole through scattered clouds and played off a colorful kaleidoscope of colors of emerging crops in the fields and blossoming apricot, peach and apple orchards.
We passed a few small villages that blended quietly with their surroundings. The valley, known for several ancient Buddhist sites, is destination for those with an interest in the remnants of Buddhist and other older cultures of Swat, including Greek, which arrived when Alexander the Great established a city a few miles to the north in 327 BCE.
Our car bumped along on the road, which turned into nothing more than a rough trail and stopped where the valley narrowed considerably, with the sun making its appearance behind the crests of mountains that closed in upon us. A few cattle and goats appeared, Large fields disappeared. Subsistence crops grew on terraces carved into the slopes. Motorcycles or donkeys transported people and fetched supplies.
At the trailhead Fazal, who had visited the area before, told us what to expect. “We will walk a little ways then turn onto another trail in a smaller valley, which will lead us to the Abba Sahib Cheena archeological site.” We were to walk up the valley, he explained, for a couple of miles to reach the old Buddhist site with its three stupas, monastery cells and meditation rooms, which few had seen.
The women listened intently, anticipation visible on their faces. Gulranga continued to wear her burqa, as did Rehmania; although I couldn’t see Rehmania’s face, the sparkle in her eyes spoke of her excitement. Later that day she told me she especially wanted to view the stupas, the buildings that hold relics of Buddhist priests, nuns and or notables. ”I am writing about the architecture of Swat’s old wooden mosques and want to see how the architecture of stupas influenced mosques built after Muslims arrived in Swat.”
We began moving and soon reached the main trail. The sun burned hotter now, yet the air felt fresh and clean. A metal pipe emerged now and then in the dry streambed; carrying water that once gushed where we walked. In centuries past the spring, which also flowed past the monastery, must have added its song to those of the monks, but now only our murmurs, our footsteps, and birdsong broke the silence.
A hike, even in the company of others, offers time for reflection and solitude. We started out as a group but every so often we separated into our own spaces, strung along the trail like islands in an archipelago. We dawdled, stopped to take photos, or to rest on steep segments of the trail.
I understood my friends’ need to savor the hike. Gulranga summed their collective feelings, “In the last few years social media has made us aware of what we have in Swat. I have seen photos of men hiking and visiting our ancient sites and I wanted to go. I am very happy to be here today. A visit to one site is better than seeing none.”
The thrill of being outdoors with their peers unfettered by family rebukes also motivated the women. “I wanted to find out for myself what this hiking business was all about that everyone—the men—kept bragging about on Facebook,” was how Neelam put it. “Women need to see what men see all the time. We need to get out and go places too”
When we found ourselves close to each other we spoke a few words. The palpable joy lighting my friends’ faces can only be described as awe. They were in a moment of realization that I can only define as sublime—exultation mingled with terror. It arose from the near wildness, the emptiness of the valley, the ghostly presence of ancient people who once lived there, and a modern terror— a feeling of isolation due to the absence of cell phone coverage.
As soon as I glimpsed the first sight of the stupa on a rise ahead I knew the monastery was near. We all paused on the trail and admired the perfectly round edifice of pale stones that glowed under the noon sun. Grass grew between the stones of its roof, heightening its forlorn and neglected state.
As we continued, the monastery’s other structures began to appear. Though empty and quiet they looked splendid clad in their isolation. But the air around them was now hazy from wood smoke from dwellings not yet visible. The prospect of seeing people close to the monastery did not dampen our excitement. We quickened our pace.
We walked mostly in silence; elated for the experience, trying to sear it into our memories. I noticed the happiness radiating from Gulranga’s face and saw her eyes darting across the little valley and up the slopes to capture every little bit.
At one point I found myself next to Shaista, who had visited a few archeological sites in the past, as part of her work as a journalist and with me. Those places were, however, located in populated areas, where people thought nothing of removing ancient stones to build new homes.
But this place was different, Shaista and I agreed. We hardly saw anyone on our path, although a few people lived in that little valley reached only by foot and mule. We had passed a couple of them, both men. One, heavy bags dangling from his arms, walked beside a donkey laden with sacks of goods; the other passed us with a load of firewood on his back, gathered farther up the trail. Both averted their eyes, ignoring us, but their faces betrayed their anger—women, faces uncovered, some without burqa walking in the open without shame.
The monastery, up close, turned out not to be so isolated. Terraces covered parts of the lower area. New crops pushed out of the earth in a few of them. In terraces without crops wild local tulips or “ghantol” danced amid the grass, their pink and white petals swaying delicately in the light breeze that cooled the fervor of the sun.
Did I mention a day of surprises?
I was surprised once again when I found out how little the women knew of their history. When I noticed the women looking as if they didn’t know what to make of the monastery, I asked them what they knew about it. Not much, they said.
“Our schools teach us nothing about the people who lived here and what they believed. We are told our history begins with the arrival of Islam. The past is kept hidden from us. It is if it never existed,” Shaista’s words shocked and saddened me. I too had grown up in Pakistan, and I remembered learning about the country’s ancient cultures in grade school. Maybe we took more pride in our past then.
A turn around the stupa revealed that a part of its wall was missing. The opening gave Rehmania a chance to view the skill of those long-ago monks. She walked inside and noted the perfect alignment of stones in the round ceiling, the spacing of the stones, and the arrangement of small and large stones to make a simple geometric design.
“Maybe local people or treasure hunters destroyed the wall in search for ‘treasures,’” Rehmania said. That idea of treasures buried in stupas is prevalent throughout Swat, the women told me later. They all knew a version of the story.
“When my mother took me to see my grandfather we would pass by a stupa. My mother always pointed it out to me, ‘That is the place where bhoot (ghosts) live.’ And I believed her for a long time,” Gulranga said.
Their discovery that stupas were reliquaries and not a storage place for treasures was recent, all the women said. And seeing the site and its simple buildings made of nothing but mud and stone was a revelation, that the only treasures were lives of spirituality by the Buddhist monks. “The stories I had heard about what the stupas held was shattered that day. I found out they held no jewels, no hoard of gold, nothing but bones and a few relics of the dead,” Neelam recalled.
The women had gained new knowledge and a realization that their history went back farther than they imagined. They also learned of similarities between the old religion and the one they practiced now. “I can say now that the tradition of the pointed piece on the roof of our mosques descends directly from those that once stood on the stupas,” Rehmania said. “Both indicate the presence of God. We have much in common with those who lived here thousands of years ago.
Neelam voiced a similar sentiment, “What our elders call piles of stones have ancient roots. They link to our past. Today I understood the importance of such places and I felt I could commune with those who lived here nearly two thousand years ago.”
We stayed a while at the monastery, clambering up to its higher reaches. The place captured us with its feeling of peace. As I looked at my women friends I realized that they would return armed with new insights that they can pass on to others. Maybe their words will help dispel some of the myths. As Gulranga aptly put it, “One woman can educate her whole family.”
Some weeks after I returned to Alaska I called each of the women to see what they remembered about the hike. Their responses give me hope.
They all voiced optimism that future generations will know about what they saw that day in Najigram valley. They look forward to the day when schoolbooks will include information about those who lived there and whose presence remains, even if it is not acknowledged.
Women of Swat don’t need encouragement. They need opportunities to go out and discover their valleys and to experience deeply the satisfaction nature offers. It is their right, my friends said. If men can go, then why not women
And if Neelam’s experience is any indication, I know women in Swat will face opprobrium for years to come. “I returned from the hike and wanted to share what I had seen and done with friends,” she said. “I did what we all do these days; I posted some photos on Facebook.” The backlash surprised her, and one in particular took her aback, “How wonderful! You have violated all boundaries today.”
On a short hike on a fine spring day in March, Neelam and the other women crossed a boundary that took them beyond the conventions that govern their lives. But someone has to take the first step. Even if that step is small, it can lead to larger strides.