Dubai: She's 41 and a single mum in Pakistan. Every morning Farheen Ishtiaq dresses up like a man to run a small corner shop on a busy street in Lahore. Why? To avoid unwanted stares and catcalls that a woman would get in Anarkali Bazaar, a congested marketplace in the heart of the city.
On February 11, Ishtiaq and her little shop became famous on social media.
Ishtiaq who belongs to Karachi, has no family except a nine-year-old daughter. She looks after her child single-handedly. Ishtiaq told Gulf News her story about how a decision to marry someone her parents did not approve of, changed the course of her life.
“In 2010, I chose to get married to someone who was not the same ethnicity as me as and my parents did not accept it. It was an extremely difficult time,” she said.
Soon after, she got pregnant. As if things were not hard enough, Ishtiaq’s husband left her while she was pregnant.
“I gave birth at a hospital without any family support. I had to have an operation done and I told the doctors, 'if I die, please give my daughter to my parents',” she said.
After her daughter, Rida Zahra, was born, Ishtiaq decided to let go of the past and focus on raising her as a single parent. Her daughter is currently nine years old.
“My only focus was to provide for her and give her a better life than what I had,” she said.
More than 850 kilometres away from Karachi, Ishtiaq had a friend in the city of Multan in Punjab, she decided to give Zahra to her, who took care of her newborn for a year and a half.
“I could not work and take care of her at the same time and I was barely making money,” she said.
Ishtiaq was working as a waitress at the time.
When her friend could no longer take care of Zahra, Ishtiaq found herself back at her parent’s doorstep.
“I told them that if they no longer want me as a daughter it is fine but they should not cut connections with their granddaughter and they kept her for four years,” she said.
From Karachi to Lahore
During this time, Ishtiaq hustled to make some money and planned a permanent solution to stay with her daughter.
“Someone told me that there is a girl’s hostel in Lahore where I could safely live with my daughter and work at the same time and I decided to go there,” she added.
Saying that it can be difficult for women to stay on their own in Pakistan, she added that ensuring a safe place to live was crucial for Ishtiaq and her daughter. She said: “I decided to pack everything and take my daughter to live with her in Lahore."
She was faced with more difficulties in the new city.
“The city was new and I found it difficult to adjust. I was also living and working around Anarkali Bazaar,” she said.
Anarkali Bazaar is a congested marketplace and one of the most visited places in Lahore.
In a highly male dominated and patriarchal society like Pakistan’s, it's common for women to be subject to harassment in public.
Women working in male centred fields can constantly get harassed with gazes, cat calls and in more extreme instances, physical and sexual abuse.
Ishtiaq started preparing snacks like samosas and chips and selling them on a hawker basket around the busy streets but invariably got harassed.
“The place is such that a woman cannot do so in peace,” said a frustrated Ishtiaq.
She decided to start dressing as man to avoid unwanted stares and cat calls.
I was always a tomboy and I thought it would be a good solution. From a business point of view, it was needed,” she said.
Talking about how people received it, she said: “People couldn’t figure out that I was a woman besides those who knew me in the bazaar”, she said.
She started operating on the streets of Lahore with the pseudonym, Ali.
After making some money from selling items on foot, she opened a tuck shop (a small corner shop) where Zahra could be by her side.
“I could work and keep my daughter beside me and I never want to separate from her again,” she said.
After coming back from school, Zahra joins her mother at the tuck shop to help with the business.
“She [Zahra] has never questioned why I dress this way. She knows exactly why,” she said.
In her spare time, before the shop opens in the mornings, Ishtiaq drives an Uber using her bike, giving rides to women.
Social media reaction
Ishtiaq's story was recently shared online as she is still struggling with debt.
A student, Zain ul Hassan, belonging to Sheikhupura saw one such post on Facebook and decided to share it on his Twitter account.
Hassan studies at a university in Lahore near where Ishtiaq has her corner shop. Talking to Gulf News, the 19-year-old said: "I decided to go and meet her. I saw the struggles she is going through and I just want people to help her."
Learning about Ishtiaq's story, Hassan said that she is inspirational. "I request people to help support such people who are fighting society itself in Pakistan," he added.