Pakistan may not always be the first port of call for travellers. A lot of bad press and historical military involvement from the western world seems to have given the impression that the middle eastern country cannot be visited. We were a little apprehensive at first because of the previous negative connotations that seem to surround the country, but we bit the bullet and decided we cannot miss out because of some bad press.
As western women travelling to Pakistan, it was overwhelming at first because of the heavy traditional values and the very different rules of etiquette. While it was not expected that we cover ourselves while out, we did it to minimise the attention that we got and out of respect for the customs in place. It is imperative to cover yourself if you are visiting a mosque or are in the vicinity.
Although it is highly unusual for women to travel alone to the Middle East, it can be done. But saying that, the local police were made aware of our presence and on occasion we were given an armed guard, this was for our own safety and although we never ran into trouble, there is always a risk in a country with such political instability.
Avoid eye contact with men, we were told it gives the wrong impression of our intentions, and we were advised by both the tourist board and the police that the safest places to stay and visit were areas where other groups of women were. On public transportation, women should sit at the window if sitting next to a man, but often men would move to allow us to sit next to each other. In taxis, we had to sit in the back.
Food and Eating
The food was incredible and we were lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party with some young socialites. While the etiquette among this generation of Pakistanis was more relaxed, there were customs that were still to be adhered to. Pork is generally not served due to religious restrictions and it is polite to leave a portion of food on your plate – indicating that the host has fed you enough.
Alcohol is served in most hotels, but not in restaurants and, as a woman never, ask for alcohol. It is not forbidden but if we are not offered it is best not to ask for it. Do not feel offended if you are travelling with a man and everyone talks to him but not to you, our male guide escorted us around the city regularly and we witnessed this a lot, this is nothing but tradition and it is a sign of respect. Although if you do not want to be bothered, they will not take it as an offence.
Navigating Pakistan, regardless of your gender, is a tricky challenge. There are many restrictions on where you can visit, and where is safe to do so, and getting in touch with the local tourist board and police force is a must for your own safety. Travelling to Pakistan is not an easy going holiday and not for the faint hearted, but the rewards are plentiful, with a wealth of historical beauty, customs steeped in culture and breathtaking buildings and monuments.