23Know thyself

How being on lockdown in Pakistan revealed the power of conditioning

Pleased as I was with what we’d been able to achieve on a practical level in Pakistan, on a personal level I was lonely. The truth was, I was desperate for female companionship. Every day I met only men, whether they were in Armani suits in city boardrooms or grubby shalwar kameez in humid villages. I missed women’s conversation and the emotional intimacy I could find only in their company. I knew that to help women effectively I needed to walk in their shoes, hear their stories, tap into their lives. I was acutely aware of my limitations: however much I felt I might have succeeded in understanding a situation, on some level I would always be thinking from a European perspective.

I was well into my second year in Pakistan — almost a year after Cyclone Yemyin — before an opportunity arose. I didn’t often open the online newsletter for expats that announced forthcoming events, as I was so rarely in town, but this week I happened to be under lockdown in Islamabad, and I felt like a caged animal pacing my apartment. I needed to find something interesting to do, so I scanned the listings without much hope. At that time our movements were so restricted that I guessed most events would be cancelled. Then one item caught my eye: a stress management course at the women’s centre. And boy, did I need stress management.

For months now I hadn’t been sleeping well. I had got used to living with high levels of ...

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