Cynthia D Ritchie is trying to “inspire” Pakistani women by riding a bicycle in Pakistan. Her stated aim is to encourage Pakistani women to reclaim public spaces. Therefore, this is one of her benevolent attempts to create a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan.
Before I delve into my argument, let me make one clarification: I refuse to fall for dichotomies. There is no doubt about the fact that many countries that were formerly colonised are today vilified in the name of terrorism and other barbaric behaviours. Moreover, Islamophobia is also a reality here in the West. This image about our part of the world being the ‘hub of terrorism’ conveniently brushes under the carpet the role of the US and its allies in creating, promoting and funding terrorists – all for protecting the cancer that is capitalism. Euro-centric and Anglo-American interventions, in line with ideas of universality, human rights and modernity seek to, even in this day and age, tame us.
At the same time, we must bear in mind that modern nation states have inherited our coloniser’s legacy. We reproduce and replicate Western ideals rooted in alterity, which is in simplistic terms the concept of a Self and Other. In colonial times, Europe was the Self and its colonial subjects were the Other. In contemporary times, the nation-state is the Self and anyone who does not conform to its rigid binary narrative is the Other. Those seeking to create a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan in the eyes of the ‘global world’ still do so in line with Western ideas of universal human rights. In the name of projecting a ‘positive’ image, we cannot ignore the many injustices committed against people by the states carved out of the Subcontinent.
Cynthia D Ritchie, a white American woman, has come to reside in Pakistan’s federal capital, Islamabad. She maintains a verified Twitter account, where she posts content revolving around projecting a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, it does not question anything done at the state level but questions pretty much everything people-driven. After her photos of riding a bicycle in Peshawar went viral, a debate sprung up on Pakistani Twitter. Some argued she was projecting a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan. Others spoke about the dangers of a white woman telling Pakistani women about what they should do.
‘Maybe it’s about time Pakistani women did take up ownership of public spaces and rode bicycles and scooters,’ tweeted Richard Harris, who has come from Belgium to live in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s largest-by-population Punjab province. In another tweet, he had stated: ‘If you’re interested in Belgian social culture, or live there, sure u have a right to comment on whatever you deem fit, even the women there. At the end of the day, we’re all just people.’
I never told any woman in my life how to walk and talk, wherever they are from. If you’re interested in Belgian social culture, or live there, sure u have a right to comment on whatever you deem fit, even the women there. At the end of the day, we’re all just people https://t.co/RxrdTT8pAG
— Richard Harris (@HarrisRichard77) November 15, 2018
I hate to break it to you, Mr Harris, but we are not “all just people”. We are born with certain privileges and you might want to check the amount of attention you get on Pakistani Twitter as compared to any other ‘business owner’ in Lahore. I hate to break it to you again, but it is because of the colour of your skin (among other intersecting social hierarchies). If you really are interested in learning about an alternative perspective, you might want to engage with the extensive scholarship available on postcolonial studies. I say this not because I believe in the supremacy of postcolonial scholarship over local voices, but because you are clearly refusing to listen to local voices that disagree with you on Twitter.
Calling out these white people who are out there to tame us uncivilised beings does not make us ‘racist’. In simplistic terms, racism is tied to questions of power, and neither Ritchie nor Harris is on the margins on account of their race.
Harris and Ritchie speak from a place of authority despite their ignorance. Ritchie is not the first woman to have ridden a bicycle on Pakistani streets – I rode a bicycle in a village in Punjab’s Daska town. She is neither the first woman to have done so in Peshawar (and “inspired” other women) as she claims in a tweet – Bushra Gohar, a former member of Parliament from the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, rode a bike and spoke about the environmental impact of transportation on Twitter in August 2018. Also, Ritchie is not the first one to have received publicity either as local activist spaces did make it to both the mainstream and social media.
Riding bicycles in Pakistan is indeed a challenge for local women. Those who have done so are aware of the harassment and abuse that they suffer. Ritchie has been openly discrediting cyclists of Girls at Dhabas, which is a local activist space that focuses on resistance in the form of reclaiming public spaces. Richie suggests that it is easy to do so in urban spaces, even though she herself became popular for riding a bicycle in a city. This further attributes to the same Western binary pertaining to urban and rural spaces – that urban spaces are more ‘modern’ and hence welcoming platforms for resistance. This kind of a suggestion reeks of misinformation and ignorance on part of a very benevolent outsider who has come to stay here: such outsiders are unaware of how rural spaces in Pakistan are much more open for women with regards to hookah-smoking or even dancing in some cases. I do not attempt to create a binary of sorts here. There are different ways in which urban and rural spaces offer avenues for women to resist. I am only problematising the assumption that one space is by default more ‘modern’ and hence easier for showing resistance than the other.
Since Ms Ritchie is here to stay with her colonial project to, in Spivak’s words, ‘save brown women’ and hence otherise them, she might want to do her homework next time. Except that her homework will never be enough in what is actually our home.
- Minerwa Tahir is pursuing an MA in Gender and Sexuality at SOAS University of London.