Your friends and family might think you’re crazy for wanting to travel to Pakistan, but you’re not alone: plenty of women travel there these days. Come prepared, and the country will welcome you with open arms.
Here’s what you can expect:
1. Your gender is a backstage pass to Pakistani society.
On the surface, Pakistan is a man’s world. Male drivers navigate roads. Male waiters bring dal to dinner tables. Men run shops, hawk wares, and loiter anywhere and everywhere.
But another world powers the male façade: the world of women. In Pakistan, women run homes, handling the 4 Cs: cooking, cleaning, clothes, and children.
Though guests are warmly welcomed in Pakistani homes, women in the family often stay away from the guest area when men are present. Female travelers can transcend this cultural barrier. Women are considered safe, and welcome to interact with both men and women. While male travelers must be more discerning, it’s totally cool for you to poke your head into the kitchen and say hi to women in the family.
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2. Every area feels different.
Pakistan’s seven provinces and territories all have very different vibes.
Take Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. There, women move freely and intermingle with men, jeans often outnumber hijabs, and female drivers are everywhere. Yet 30 minutes south of Islamabad in Rawalpindi there are fewer women outside, hardly any female drivers, and a lot more burqas and hijabs.
Mountainous Gilgit Baltistan is another story entirely, especially in the Hunza region. There, women run businesses, go to school, herd animals, and play sports. In short, almost everything! Men and women mix regularly, and local girls enjoy more freedom than their southern counterparts. You’ll rest easy in Hunza.
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3. When getting dressed, modesty is key (but not at the expense of colour!)
Pakistan is a conservative Islamic country, so please leave the shorts and crop tops at home.
Though modesty is a must, dress isn’t officially regulated; it’s about respecting local culture. Modesty doesn’t mean miserable—in Pakistan, the more colourful, the better!
Headscarves aren’t necessary except when visiting mosques, though they can reduce stares in more conservative areas such as bazaars. Always carry a scarf with you, just in case you need to fling one over your head.
Long, loose shirts covering your bum are best for day-to-day wear. Three-quarter-length to long-sleeved shirts are ideal, though sometimes young women wear t-shirts in major cities.
Long pants are a must. Tight pants, like skinny jeans or leggings, are acceptable if they’re worn with long shirts, but they’re certainly not ideal on hot days.
Salwar kameez is the cool and colorful pant-shirt combination common in Pakistan. Don’t be afraid to buy a set! They’re extremely comfortable (they’re basically socially acceptable pajamas) and locals will appreciate your gesture.
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4. You’ll feel like a celebrity… and be photographed like one too.
“One selfie, madam?” is a phrase you’ll probably hear at least once in Pakistan, especially if you’re white.
Whether you allow your newfound friends to snap the selfie is your call. A single selfie request can quickly turn into a massive PR ordeal in busy places, so pick and choose your battles wisely. Requests from women are usually harmless, but it’s recommended to politely decline requests from lone men or groups of boys, unless you’ve interacted beforehand.
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5. It’s okay to be friendly with men… but not too friendly.
Men are not creatures to be feared in Pakistan. There are plenty of gems around!
Still, be mindful when interacting with them. What you think is friendly might be flirtatious to a local man. You don’t want to lead anyone on; many men hope to marry foreign women.
If you’re not interested in getting betrothed on your trip, aim to be pleasant but distant. When first meeting a man, try not to smile too much. Avoid physical contact, such as light touches while talking. Don’t shake hands with men unless they offer first.
Some might ask for your phone number, email, or “Facebook ID”. It’s best not to share contact information with men you don’t know… unless you like being called by strangers on a daily basis! If you need an excuse, say you don’t use social media or have a Pakistani phone number.
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6. People will take extra good care of you because you’re a woman.
Female travelers are a relative anomaly in Pakistan, but that works in your favour. Pakistani culture places great emphasis on protecting women. As a woman traveling sans-man, many locals will be extra protective of you.
Pakistanis will help you navigate traffic, give you the best seat, let you cut lines, guide you in person when you’re lost… and then some.
7. You might be overwhelmed at times.
Pakistan can be intense. Some days, people will break your heart. On others, you’ll want to scream at the injustice. It’s hard, but remember: you are a guest.
Though you may feel strongly about some practices, it’s not your place to force change. Pakistan isn’t perfect, but there are still many things it can teach outsiders willing to listen and learn.
Explore Pakistan with a female local leader on our new 15-day Women’s Expedition now. Find out more about this incredible adventure here.
Feature photo C/O Intrepid.