When I got in touch with Tanzila Khan, Zargoona Wadood and Afshan Afridi, they were still very much in the midst of their holiday to Egypt. I could hear the balmy desert breeze blowing in the background of the voice notes Khan sent to tell me about their holiday experience so far. For the three of them, their trip to Egypt is about more than feeling the warm joy of having leisure time in a foreign land. It’s a holiday with purpose — to show the world as much as themselves that it is possible to travel independently as people who are in wheelchairs.
Khan, Wadood and Afridi are fierce advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities in Pakistan, a fight they wage for themselves as much as for others. Wadood and Afridi had to use wheelchairs after contracting polio when they were infants. Khan has been unable to walk because of a pre-existing condition since birth. Despite their inability to walk, or maybe all the more because of it, all three women have gone on to achieve extraordinary things.
“I’m from Quetta, Balochistan,” Wadood told me. “I have done my Bachelors in Law and my Masters in English Literature. Currently I am working as a disability rights advocate. My work primarily focuses on women with disabilities.”
Jump over to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and you’ll find Afridi living in Peshawar. “Originally I’m from the frontier region of Kohat,” she shared. “I was brought up in Peshawar. I studied through special education services in the city. I did my Bachelors in Microbiology and have been working in the development sector since 2013.
“I’m working as a gender equality and social inclusion officer for an international company. I also work with various provincial government organisations to help include the consideration of women with disabilities in their policy making.”
Khan is an activist and entrepreneur from Punjab who is on a mission to help improve women’s health. “I run Girlythings, a service that delivers menstrual health products to women across Pakistan,” she said. “I am the writer, producer and actor behind Pakistan’s first short comedy on disability called Fruit Chaat. I’m also a public speaker and do many other ventures on disability and empowerment.”
These three women are close friends and Afridi likes to call their friendship a “unique cocktail” that blends representation from three provinces — Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They were brought together through their work on disability movements across Pakistan and once they met there was no going back. Their decision to travel together on an international trip didn’t feel unnatural to them, given how comfortable they are with each other.
“I met Tanzila in 2013 and then I met Zargoona in 2018,” Afridi said. “We decided to travel together to show people — especially those with disabilities — that it is possible to travel without an attendant. We wanted to open the door to envisioning such an opportunity.”
For Wadood, travelling without an attendant seemed daunting and was something she eventually agreed to do because of Khan and Afridi. “Tanzila has already travelled to Turkey by herself, so has Afshan,” she said. “Seeing them really motivated me to travel independently as well. When I went through pictures of their solo trips on social media, I messaged and asked them to plan something with the three of us together.
“I had never travelled outside Quetta without an attendant before this trip. Tanzila and Afshan shared their experiences and assured me we can travel without an attendant. We shouldn’t back out of going to places where there are no services of an attendant. If other people can travel without an attendant then why not us?” she said.
The fear of travelling without an attendant is genuine. In a country like Pakistan where less than adequate measures are taken to make spaces accessible for the differently-abled, having an attendant accompany a person in a wheelchair becomes a matter of survival. “Accessibility is definitely a huge issue in Pakistan,” Wadood said. “We don’t have ramps in most buildings. Additionally we do not have proper elevators. These greatly limit a wheelchair bound person. Quetta faces these problems much more severely than other cities in Pakistan.”
All of this has an emotional toll. People who use wheelchairs also have to tackle the stress triggered by the challenges of day to day mobility. Something as simple as going to the bathroom or sitting in the car can be a monumental task.
For Khan, travelling without an attendant was a chance at realising one of her biggest dreams — living an independent life. "The first and foremost thing I want to achieve in life is to live life only own terms,” she said. “Be independent and free.”
Khan’s first taste of independence was well before her trip with Wadud and Khan. She made her first solo trip to Istanbul in January. “I went to Turkey during peak lockdown and that was a great time for self reflection. I was all by myself in the streets of Istanbul. I learned a lot about my own power, my own journey and what I really want in life. After I came back from my solo trip to Turkey, all of us decided to take our first international trip together.”
Once the time came, the women chose to go to Egypt for their first solo trip. I asked them what made the edge of the Sahara Desert a greater attraction than the sandy beaches of some tropical country and the answer lay in Egypt’s rich history. “We were always intrigued by Egypt, the history, the culture,” Khan told me. “We’re also huge admirers of Prophet Musa in Islam and we really wanted to visit the country where he was born.”
The easy availability of halal food didn't hurt either. Egypt, after all, is known for many of its gastronomical delicacies that deserve to be tasted. However, what the country isn’t known for is providing accessibility to the differently-abled, especially foreigners travelling across the country.
For the women, no country on Earth was ever going to promise them 100% accessibility. They decided not to limit their options and visit a country they really wanted to experience. They booked their flights to Cairo as soon as they could.
The women were still in Egypt at the time I wrote writing this article. Judging by the photographs they sent me, it was clear they were having an adventure of a lifetime. The experience was manifesting more than just sightseeing — it was rewarding them on a spiritual and emotional level as well.
“It’s all very spiritual,” Khan shared. “We’re facing our own demons. Twice or thrice during the trip, we broke down while sharing our life journeys with each other. Yesterday I broke down too. We were in this beautiful place and I was telling my friends that I have paid a very heavy price to be here right now. This beautiful view has not just come with money. It has come with time. I have taken 20 years to reach the level at which I could travel independently. A man could probably do the same in a week. This was quite an emotional conversation.”
Of course no holiday is all sunshine and rainbows, especially for women who choose to travel alone. “Travelling as wheelchair bound women is not easy at all,” Afridi admitted. “But it is not impossible. We’re really learning how to effectively communicate with the people we interact with on the trip. How to keep yourself strong and confident when going to new places. How to speak up for your own rights when people aren’t as kind and accommodating as they should be. We have to be attentive at all times and keep an eye on what’s happening around us.
“Its important to read up and learn about the places you are going to well before you travel,” she added as an important takeaway from their experience.
I asked them how the government and other relevant institutions can make the experience of international travelling easier for people with disabilities. “The government should offer services that help make the planning process easier for people with disabilities,” Afridi said. "Services that help us expedite our visas or get our documents together. They should liaison with other countries in order to secure special services and ease for Pakistanis with disabilities.There should be pre-arranged services that we can opt for when we decide to travel.”
Wadood said independent travel agencies should also bear some responsibility on this front. “They should offer tailor-made packages with discounts. Such packages should include visiting places that offer ease in accessibility. We’ve come to learn that sometimes you have no option but to cancel or change your plans at the last moment because a place you decided to visit isn’t very accessible. If travel agents can see to all of this beforehand, it would offer great comfort to a person with disability, especially one who intends on travelling without an attendant.”
The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t make things any easier for them. “Our bookings kept getting cancelled after we got our visas. We had to get our Covid tests and vaccinations done on time. A lot of problems came our way because of the pandemic. We got all of it done ourselves without asking for additional assistance from others though,” Afridi told me proudly.
Despite all the difficulties, their trip to Egypt was a monumental success. The women have made up their minds to continue the adventure of taking solo international trips. Which country is next on their bucket list? Afridi informed me its Spain — the land of tapas, Mediterranean beaches and, for all the history nerds out there, the magnificent Alhambra palace built by the Moors. Needless to say, the women are bound to have a wonderful time at their next destination as well.