Prove your identity

February 9, 2020

Should security personnel be allowed to police according to selective morals and values rather than by laws and procedure?

Seven years ago, when an officer at a Cantt checkpoint took one look at my short purple hair, leather jacket, and jeans, and asked if I was an Indian, I threw a fit.

Livid and brimming with upper-middle-class privilege, I jumped out of the rickshaw, and demanded to know where he got such an idea. The officer looked taken aback yet stated assertively, “Pakistani girls don’t dress like you, they also don’t smoke,” pointing to a steady stream still rising from my hand.

After a belligerent rant accompanied by wagging fingers, gathering other officers who began to apologise for him, holding up traffic, I headed home in the auto, shaken with rage.

Growing up in a time fraught with terrorist threats, dealing with police, rangers, checkpoints and patrolling played a crucial role in my day-to-day mobility. As their side-hustle was moral policing, blackmailing and questioning young individuals, travelling in groups or using private transportation, for enjoyment and extra cash. I soon learnt that the best response to suspicious, gender-insensitive security personnel were short one-liners, conveying only necessary information. After I started to drive, such interactions decreased, or extended at worst to a quick ID card check.

Recently, as I’ve started travelling to work by Uber/Careem, a bizarre phenomenon at Lahore Cantt entry checkpoints is making my relationship as a female commuter with security personnel, tense all over again. Every day, I enter and re-enter Cantt from the same checkpoints, to and from work. Every day, I am asked for my ID, with a follow-up of predictably the same questions, which can take between one and twenty minutes: “Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why are you going at this hour?” Sometimes these conversations can take plain illogical turns and prove to be nothing but a waste of time.

Once, I handed my passport instead of the ID card, and before even looking at the document, the officer asked, “Are you Indian?”

“My passport is Pakistani,” I replied.

“You don’t look Pakistani,” he commented, without even glancing at the first page, and waved for us to move forward.

An additional favourite inquiry of any thoroughly checking officer is, “But your address says Islamabad?”

“I work here!”

“But this is Lahore.”

“Lahore and Islamabad are both in Pakistan,” I explain, often overwhelmed by the circular nature of such an irrational query. Can I not be from Islamabad and live in Lahore?

Another time, an officer misreading, insisted my ID card had expired. When I reread the date to him correctly, he asked me if I thought he was stupid. I asked him if he worked for the NADRA. He then proceeded to hold us for another ten minutes, having a female police officer frisk my carry-ons and pockets, while two other officers explained to him how he was misreading the date, before begrudgingly allowing us to pass.

At the same checkpost two weeks later, an officer complained that I always take too long to hand over my ID. He then asked me why I took this particular route? I told him it was my route to work because it’s the shortest distance my taxes pay for.” His eyes lit up with rage as the Careem captain tried to politely intervene. Needless to say, I spent an additional 15 minutes at the checkpoint, for my insolence.

Such encounters are reminiscent of teenage days spent held-up on the sides of roads, punished by authority, not over any crime or suspicion rather for daring to question their moral policing.

The captains who accompany me through such encounters, often say that it is impossible for them to go through Cantt these days without women, especially young ones, being stopped and asked where from, where to and why they were going. Make it later than 10 in the night, and a forceful “But why, at this time?” pops up. Questions, I wonder why security personnel think within their purview to ask young adults. None of them allude to detecting terrorism or criminal activity, rather a desire to monitor and keep check of mobility and curfews.

Apart from the mental inconvenience at the beginning and end of a long day, private transportation runs on a meter. The more one argues or comes across an officer waiting to pull you on the side for thorough questioning and checking, the more you quite literally have to pay.

Ultimately, being treated so suspiciously makes you wonder why people entrusted with protecting us, see women like me as a threat, and a threat to what exactly? Should security personnel be allowed to police according to selective morals and values rather than by laws and procedure?

Prove your identity: Problems commuters face at Lahore Cantt