The highlight of my week was my trip to the passport office with a three year old and a seven month old in tow. We’re seriously considering a family holiday this summer and so there I was, armed with snacks, water and Sophie the Giraffe, gamely standing in line. For hours. You see, we are of that simple ilk that have no Contacts whatsoever with Anyone That Matters and so I had no sifarish and no helpful name to drop. I would shamelessly accept any sifarish if it meant I could avoid a toddler meltdown in the middle of a crowded building. If the devil himself had arrived and said, “Here’s your token, you can skip to Stage 4,” I’d have wrestled my daughter off the dirty floor and shot off before he could change his mind. Needlesss to say, none of that happened. Our neighbours in the line were very cordial and the toddler soon made friends with another child, so we moved along fairly harmoniously. The passport people were brusque but civil, and by the time I made it to Phase 3, where they enter the applicant’s information, I was feeling almost upbeat. Almost done! The woman punching in my daughters’ names asked me who had named them—such long names for little girls!—to which I mildly pointed out they won’t be little for very long.

Once the girls had been cleared of being on the Exit Control List it was time to wait for Stage 4, the interview, and that is where the chaos began. At every previous stage token numbers were called in ascending sequence—140, 141, 142 and so forth. Only at Stage 4, there was no such thing as numerical accuracy. The toddler had begun her meltdown, the baby was beginning to look fed up and the token numbers were all over the place. That’s when I asked one of the men at the Stage 4 desks why this was happening. I was told brusquely that my number would come, so go away and wait. So I waited, trying to calm the toddler, my eye anxiously scanning the four displays as they showed every number before and after my token numbers. Afraid that I’d missed my turn, I asked again. This time I asked an older man. He glared at me and told me to go away. But what about my number? I asked. It’ll come whenever it does, I was told dismissively. The women reading this column will know that look—the look men give you when they call you ‘bibi.’

163 got called, and I scuttled to the desk and had one child sorted out, but the benighted 161 was nowhere in sight. Finally, it flashed on a display screen, and it happened to be above Mean Spectacled Old Man’s desk. I was just glad to see my number being called, so I dragged the children over and got to it. See, your number came, didn’t it? he sneered. Yes, I said, but I was just asking you when it would, and you could have just told me. That annoyed him. By some invisible radar, another man joined us, shuffling I.D cards around, asking where the father was. They both decided to continue this conversation. What is this way of speaking? I’m your father—main tumhara baap hoon—Mean Old Man informed me, frowning and raising his voice threateningly. If you were, I said, you wouldn’t be speaking to me like you are right now. I can, he said, but you can’t. I don’t understand your system, I said wearily, so can you please just sign the form so I can go home? This time I was the one waving the dismissive hand. That really seemed to get their goat, because the sidekick proceeded to grab my forms and said we can just not sign your form because you’re so rude. Kya karleingi aap? What will you do? You better say sorry.

The noise of the passport office faded around my ears as I felt rage begin to well up inside me. I fixed this smirking, smug little weasel with a stare, retorts flying around my head. What will I do? I’m going to talk to your supervisor. I’m going to get you both fired. I’m going to call someone, anyone, and have you kidnapped and thrown into a tiny room with rats. We pay tax so you have a job at all. How dare you speak to me like that. I shot a quick glance at my three year old, her curly head leaning against my leg. She was, thankfully, looking the other way, thumb in mouth. You’re so rude, hissed Mean Old Man venomously. I kept staring, seething, but remained silent. I had spent four hours reaching this point, and I was damned if I was going to let a pair of power-mad little men force me to subject my children to this process all over again, or apologize for something I didn’t do. So I, quite literally, bit my tongue. They smirked some more at me, signed the form and put it away. What are your names? I asked. They blanched. No really, I said. What are your names? Sidekick beat a hasty retreat and Mean Old Man changed the token number. Next, next, he said, and I was hustled aside.

The next day I went back to do a bit of sleuthing and find Mean Old Man’s name out, but here’s the funny part: nobody would tell me. They all knew him, but nobody would tell. One man said to me, but he’s an officer, so whatever he said doesn’t matter.

This isn’t just about being a woman. It’s about how we are treated, as citizens of this country, by the people we pay to employ. The problem is us. We let this happen. Every single man who wouldn’t tell me Mean Old Man’s name is complicit in endorsing his behaviour, and the irony is that they weren’t singling me out particularly. The problem is that they thought it was all right. It is not all right. It is never, ever all right for anyone, particularly a government servant. It’s not all right that people have heard my story and shrugged, saying that’s the way it goes in Pakistan. That is not the way it goes in Pakistan, thank you. The people waiting in the passport office with me were unfailingly pleasant to each other. I saw women with tiny babies get up to let an old lady sit in their seat. A man with a straggly beard stood up and offered me his chair as I walked my baby up and down. We shared our carrot sticks with a little pair of siblings. I chatted in halting Punjabi with several women. Not once did anyone push, swear or swagger. That seemed to be the exclusive reserve of the government officials in charge. The people who steal electricity and never pay tax are not the ones standing in lines at the Garden Town passport office; they are sitting pretty in an air-conditioned VIP room somewhere.

I’m told the MD of the passport office is a helpful man. I’m looking forward to him helping me out this time, so that next time these men try to bully anyone, they remember that woman with the furious face who kept asking questions, and think twice.

 The writer is a writer based in Lahore, and would welcome any leads to further her quest for justice.

Email:m.malikhussain@gmail.com