The subject of today’s article is not an easy or comfortable topic to tackle. Talking about sexual harassment, in general, is uncomfortable for most people.
I’ll admit also that as a man – I have definitely had different experiences over the last 10 years of travel than if I were a woman. In any case, the whole sexual harassment while traveling issue is an important topic to confront and speak about which is exactly what I will unpack below.
So I have had many people ask me: is Pakistan safe for solo women to travel to? What about sexual harassment/safety issues? The short answer is that while I feel that Pakistan is mostly safe for solo women to travel to – there have been reports of figures deeply embedded in the tourism community who are directly involved with sexual harassment allegations as well as local police in some areas acting inappropriately.
And very few people talk about it.
Saying that Pakistan is generally unsafe for women is not fair and not something I believe. However, there are things that should be on the radar of female (and male) travelers as well as on the radar of locals who work in the tourism industry.
Sexual Harrasment and Travel: The Global Issue
Sexual harassment and making unwanted advances towards female travelers is not something unique to Pakistan. This is more of a societal problem globally – where men of any race or ethnicity feel entitled to sexually harass and make unwanted advances towards women. India as an example has a pretty bad reputation on this front.
The point being, this stuff is happening all the time all over the world – and as a community of travelers – I think it is our duty to inform each other as much as possible about potential risks and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations while on the road.
It is also important for men working in the tourism industry in Pakistan to know something: Pakistani tourism is going to explode in the next few years and it is up to you all which direction this thing goes.
The question remains: can tourism in Pakistan grow without the instances of sexual harassment between local men and foreign women growing also?
The Pakistan Situation
Pakistan is an ultra-patriarchal society dominated by men. Things are slowly changing in big cities where women hold important jobs, hold high status within their communities, and are generally treated as equals to men – at least on the surface level. However, this represents a very small number of the total population of women living in Pakistan.
In many places, you simply don’t see women out and about. Pakistan often feels like “the country of dudes” – because it can be rare to see and/or interact with local women in most of the places in Pakistan I go to.
Pakistan is also a very sexually repressed society and these sexual frustrations manifest in a multitude of ways. Throw in a bunch of new and unmitigated exposure to foreign tourists and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
With More Tourism Comes More Exposure
Tourism in any sort of quantifiable number is relatively new to Pakistan. There was a tourism scene here in the 70s, 80s, and 90’s – mostly travelers on the legendary “Hippie Trail” or expeditions climbing in the big mountains. After 9/11 happened, tourism numbers in Pakistan dropped off completely. Nobody was coming to Pakistan.
It is hard to set an exact date around it, but sometime between 2015 and 2017 Pakistan started getting a ton of positive publicity. Mostly this new global exposure was coming from bloggers, YouTubers, and Instagram influencers – and the cat was out of the bag: Pakistan is fucking awesome.
The problem is that most big-name social media folks have only shared positive images and stories about Pakistan – and very few have talked about the deep-rooted problems related to how foreign women can be treated here if they interact with the wrong people.
Let’s be clear about something though: the majority of Pakistanis – whether involved in tourism or not – are respectful, genuine, and kind when it comes to dealing with foreigners (male or female). Then there are the others… who use the famous reputation of local hospitality and kindness to their advantage – acting inappropriately with foreign women in the processes.
How the Internet Has Changed the Situation
Internet access to remote parts of Pakistan has changed the situation in many ways.
On one hand, it has opened up these formally ultra-remote areas to the outside world and expanded access to information, services, and education. It has also has made it really easy for people in these areas to use it for other purposes like social networking, Youtube, etc.
I also believe that due to such new access to western media, films, and pornography (if they use a VPN) – generally speaking, the internet might have helped form an opinion in the minds of local men regarding foreign women and how to interact with them. Some might have gotten the idea that foreign women are easy to sleep with, promiscuous, and that they can interact differently with foreign women versus how they do with local women from their village… and without consequences, if they act poorly.
The point is, combine these warped pre-conceived notions of foreign women with a lack of access to proper education and a society that oppresses sexual desire at every turn and you end up with situations that pose risks and annoyances for female travelers (of course educated people can be sexually harassing a-holes too – not what I am saying here).
Say Cheese: Photography and the Hypocrisy of Consent in Pakistan
As a photographer, Pakistan is an amazing place to capture some truly stunning images – of landscapes, people, food – you name it.
There is a weird double standard in Pakistan though. Men all over Pakistan have no problem taking selfies or photos of foreign women without asking permission – but then get upset if you even point a camera at a Pakistani lady. The selfie-harassment issues have gotten so bad that I have very little patience for it these days.
Local men might even take the opportunity to put their arm around you or cop a quick feel somewhere else – this is best avoided by simply not taking selfies with some random dude who approaches you.
So, fellow photographers and travelers in Pakistan: be sure to always ask permission before taking a photo of any local person close up. Do not stand for local men taking photos of you without your expressed consent. Call them out on that shit. If you are into all the selfies – go for it! If you are not, it is your right to make that fact known.
Local men: stop with all the selfie-harassment already!!
I’d like to know where all of these selfies end up anyway. Here is a new business idea for all you selfie addicts: pakforeignerselfie.com. You should have thousands of submissions on your first day of operation haha.
Why Some Accomodation Options in Pakistan Can Be Risky
In Northern Pakistan, the trend of staying with local families has become quite popular. And for good reason: it can be awesome.
For years while leading trips with my company Epic Backpacker Tours – we have stayed with local families in their homes – and to be honest – both from my own and a client perspective – staying at a homestay can be the best experience of the entire trip.
Getting to step into the world of a local family in a rural mountain village is a powerful experience and something that has very large potential to become a Pakistan-tourism mainstay in the future.
So why can it be risky if you are a lady traveling alone? Here is my opinion:
Staying at a local homestay alone has the potential to be a risk for female travelers because it puts the traveler in a position where they might be alone with the men from that family in an unmitigated circumstance – away from a more public setting like a hotel – of course, bad situations can happen at hotels too, but you get what I am saying.
It should be noted that several male family members in well-known homestays in Hunza and Charpursan Valleys have been accused by multiple women of acting inappropriately and making unwanted sexual advances.
This is such a tricky topic for me personally because I have had such good experiences at both homestays and I care deeply for the families I have had many years of direct experience with.
But there are alternatives. Check out this article for a list of safe homestays in Pakistan.
Side Rant: The Pakistani Police
For all travelers, there will simply be some annoying things (not talking about blatant sexual harassment here) one has to deal with. These include being stared at insistently by locals, being asked (or not) for selfies everywhere you go, and dealing with the police for better or for worse.
Most of the time, I have encountered friendly and helpful Police – but just a few weeks ago, we had a mandatory police escort nicknamed “Tiger” with us who bragged on and on about how a recent Russian tourist he had been “guarding” had invited him to her room for something. All the insinuations were there.
He was telling this story to whoever would listen and to every female member of our group. When I later called him out on this, he replied “I am a good Muslim. I am married. I would never say that!” Bullshit dude. A spade is a spade.
If Pakistani authorities insist we foreign travelers take a police escort, at least make sure they are professional and not idiots rambling on about their sexual fantasies/stories/lies whatever.
Being Outside Your Comfort Zone vs Taking Unnecessary Risks
I want to encourage men and women to get out there and have an amazing time traveling around Pakistan. If you are unwilling to put yourself out there to a degree and step out of your comfort bubble – traveling in Pakistan is probably not for you.
Part of traveling is putting yourself in uncomfortable situations – and one must deal with some discomfort in every country one goes to.
There is a BIG difference between stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking unnecessary risks though – especially when there are information and resources out there to help you stay away from bad situations.
So how do you have an awesome time in Pakistan while staying safe in the process? Check out a few tips below…
Practical Advice for the Independant Traveler
As I mentioned above, there is a line between stepping out of your comfort zone and putting yourself in a risky situation. The below list is not intended to fearmonger or insinuate great threats lurking around every corner. There are just a few common sense things to keep in mind as you embark on your Pakistan travel adventure.
Resources for Safely Traveling in Pakistan
Am I saying to stay away from all homestay options, not speak to local people, and to fear every man you meet in Pakistan? Definitely not! Some of my closest relationships and friendships have been formed in Pakistan and one can have some truly fantastic experiences with people you have just met – in every corner of Pakistan.
I simply wanted to put this information out there so that travelers can make informed choices on how they travel here, where to stay, who to interact with, what to avoid, and what sort of situations carry more risks vs others.
Use your spidey senses and the information you have available to you to make the right call given the circumstances.
Do your own research and listen to the experiences of other travelers. Join our Backpacking Pakistan Facebook group and ask fellow travelers about their experiences regarding specific regions/guides/homestays/hotels etc if you have questions.
Send me a direct message on IG (@off_the_atlas) if you have a question about these issues.
Check out this travel guide: Is Pakistan Safe? for further reading on safe travel and Pakistan.
Drop a comment in this article if you have some relevant updates to share with the Pakistan traveler community.
By being aware of the situation in Pakistan we can take the first steps to end harassment in all of its forms.