Long before she became headline news in Pakistan, Cynthia Dawn Ritchie was simply a tourist. In 2009, Ritchie, an American woman living in Houston, Texas, took a trip to Karachi, the sprawling megacity in southern Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan was beset by terrorist violence, and the travel advice of most western countries could be summarised as “don’t go”. But Ritchie had been persuaded by friends who knew the city. “My Pakistani friends said: ‘Cynthia, you’ve travelled much of the world, but you haven’t been to Pakistan, why not come?’ I was like: ‘Sure, why not?’,” Ritchie told me.
After a couple of weeks eating seafood and sightseeing, Ritchie went back to Houston, where she worked in communications and other roles for local government. The next year, she made a few more trips to Pakistan, funded by various Pakistani-American organisations. Houston is twinned with Karachi, and Ritchie told me that back then she “represented the city as an informal goodwill ambassador”. As foreigners in Pakistan often are, she was immediately offered exciting opportunities – working with local NGOs, advising the health department about social media, giving lectures. That year, she decided to move to Pakistan permanently. “I just felt a kinship here, that I belonged here and had a sense of purpose,” she said when we first spoke earlier this year. She settled in the leafy, relatively secure capital city, Islamabad, where most westerners in Pakistan – diplomats, journalists, aid workers – also lived.
Ritchie had no problem making friends and contacts. She has a supremely confident manner, and speaks as if she already knows that you’re going to agree with her. At first, she worked in development, consulting for government agencies and NGOs. A few years after moving, she started work on a documentary series that would showcase Pakistan’s natural beauty and cultural riches. Later, there would be some claims on social media that Pakistan’s powerful military had some involvement in the project, but Ritchie insists that it was entirely self-funded. In October 2015, she posted a short trailer on her YouTube channel and Facebook page. “Living abroad, one often hears of Pakistan in myopic and prejudiced terms,” she announces in the voiceover. “But my time in Pakistan has taught me the world can be wrong about many things.” Over the next three-and-a-half minutes, we see shots of bustling markets, jagged mountain ranges, and Ritchie, a tall, attractive woman, in various street scenes – playing with children, driving a rickshaw. “Join me,” Ritchie says, “as we show a side of Pakistan rarely seen in the international media.”
Ritchie didn’t have much of a following, but the video became a hit on Pakistani social media. To date, it has been watched more than 2m times. “I received overwhelmingly positive responses,” she said. Pakistan’s population has lived through two grim decades of political instability, terrorist violence and military crackdowns, and many people are acutely aware of their country’s negative image abroad. Ritchie’s video offered something different: here was an American who wasn’t focusing on grotesque scenes of urban violence, but the picture-postcard beauty of the Hunza valley and the glorious Mughal architecture of Lahore. “Some of the messages I got brought tears to my eyes,” Ritchie told me. “People were like: ‘I haven’t seen my country like this in years now. Thank you so much. I’m crying.’”
There was a point, not very long ago, when the sheer fact of being a white tourist in Pakistan was enough to merit headlines. Glowing articles about Ritchie and her travels in Pakistan appeared on news websites, and her following on social media grew. Alongside this novelty factor, her path to fame was smoothed by what people on the subcontinent call the “gora complex”, a term that describes preferential treatment given to white people. (Gora means “white person” in Urdu.) “In Pakistan, nothing sells more than a white-skinned person,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani academic and author. “The colonial mindset is still there.”
Ritchie’s documentary never materialised, but the trailer she posted in 2015 started a trend. In the last few years, Pakistan has become an unlikely destination for western social media influencers producing glossy, upbeat travel content. British Airways flights to Pakistan resumed in 2019, after a 10-year hiatus due to terrorist violence. At least in part because of the influx of YouTubers and Instagrammers, last year, Forbes listed Pakistan as one of its Top 10 “under the radar” holiday destinations for 2020, while Condé Nast Traveller ranked it No 1 overall. Under prime minister Imran Khan, the government has encouraged this trend, enthusiastically promoting tourism.
Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. Photograph: Robert Preston/Alamy
While many Pakistanis felt pride at the international coverage, others looked on with bewilderment. During the same period that Pakistan has been promoted as an idyllic tourist destination, anyone presenting a more critical narrative has been muzzled. Scores of activists and protesters, including a sitting member of parliament, have been arrested for sedition. Senior leaders from the two main opposition parties – the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) – have been arrested on corruption charges (some of them remain in custody).
Meanwhile, the military, which directly ruled the country for roughly half of its 73-year history and retains control over foreign and security policy, has taken an increasingly active role in civilian government. To some, the tourism push felt like an attempt to distract attention from this crackdown and, as one Pakistani dissident blog puts it, to argue that “Pakistan’s beautiful landscape and the hospitality and kindness of its people should somehow give it a pass over terrorism, nuclear irresponsibility, money laundering, lack of democracy and human rights”.
White travel influencers, who often receive extraordinary privileges such as access to restricted areas and meetings with top officials, have been useful to a government trying to sell a new vision of the country – and the debate about their role has divided Pakistan. “The military wants to control the discourse,” I was told by Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US. “They want to shut down all dissenting voices.” To Haqqani, the influencers were part of the “discourse industry” that the government had promoted.
In Ritchie’s case, this has developed into a major political scandal. Despite having no public profile in her home country, since her arrival in Pakistan, Ritchie has gained almost 290,000 followers on Twitter, and regularly appears on national television. In June, after months of increasingly combative public pronouncements in which she attacked Pakistani liberals, Ritchie accused a prominent opposition politician of rape, and two others from the same party of sexual assault. (All three men deny the allegations.) Her claims were front-page news. “Cynthia Ritchie’s accusations are bigger than Covid in Pakistan,” read one headline. But rather than a #MeToo-style reckoning, the scandal has led to greater scrutiny of Ritchie herself.
Her critics accuse her of being a propagandist for the military with a white saviour complex. Ritchie denies this: she sees herself as a clear-eyed truth-teller who has been unfairly persecuted for striving to build a bridge between Pakistan and the west. “Not everybody has understood what I’ve been trying to do for a number of years, and I understand that,” she told me. “For many it’s easier to just think I’ve been hired by the military to do this.” Later, she added grandly: “I do believe I was meant to affect a positive change relating to the western-Pakistan dynamic.”
Soon after Ritchie’s first video aired in 2015, American travel blogger Alex Reynolds and her then-boyfriend arrived in Pakistan as part of an overland trip around the world. “There were just no foreign tourists – I saw two in six weeks in Pakistan,” Reynolds told me. Dawn, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper, ran a story about their trip headlined: “Meet the hiking duo who took a chance on Pakistan.”
In the 60s, Pakistan was part of the legendary “hippy trail” that stretched from Europe to Asia, but this virtually disappeared after Gen Zia ul-Haq seized power in the 70s and began a programme of Islamisation. The trickle of international tourism that continued through the 80s and 90s finally dried up after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, as westerners became a target for local branches of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Even within Pakistan, domestic tourism slowed to a halt, given the safety risks: since 2001, around 65,000 people in Pakistan have been killed in terrorist attacks or anti-terror military operations.
By 2016, when Reynolds arrived, it was much safer. An army-led operation that began a couple of years earlier had drastically reduced terrorist and political violence. But it was difficult to find clear advice about travelling around the country. On her blog, she collated practical information about visas and transport, and soon she began to get queries from other western travellers. Some were other content creators – including those, like Reynolds, who describe themselves as “adventure tourists”, seeking out unusual, sometimes dangerous destinations to visit.
One of these aspiring travel vloggers was Eva zu Beck, a young Polish-born woman who had recently quit her job working for a travel startup in London. In April 2018, Zu Beck visited Gilgit-Baltistan, a beautiful mountainous region of Pakistan scattered with aquamarine lakes and majestic pine trees, parts of which are inhabited by polytheistic tribal communities. When she returned to Pakistan later in the year, Zu Beck posted vlogs to YouTube from Pakistan’s major cities. Her follower count grew exponentially, driven mainly by viewers within Pakistan. One video she posted to Facebook in August 2018 has been viewed 1.5m times.
Alex Reynolds visiting Gilgit-Balitistan in 2019. Photograph: Lost With Purpose
“I was getting a lot of views from people who seemed to be surprised by the fact that their own country was so beautiful,” Zu Beck told me. She was interviewed on Pakistani TV about her travels, and within months she was being recognised on the street as she walked around Islamabad. “It was totally overwhelming,” she said.
Others in the adventure tourism world began to show an interest in Pakistan. In 2019, Rosie Gabrielle, a Canadian Instagrammer and YouTuber began a solo motorcycling tour of the country, quickly gaining hundreds of thousands of followers. Big-name travel influencers, such as the Food Ranger (4.66 million YouTube subscribers) and Drew Binsky (2.01 million YouTube subscribers) were also joining the scramble. One of Binsky’s videos, which celebrated the country’s hospitality culture, showed him trying to pay for things at market stalls and in restaurants and being rebuffed. The title of the video was “Why is everything free in Pakistan?” He concluded that “The people of Pakistan are incredibly joyful. They’re laid-back, they don’t stress much, they don’t care about living in a nice house or driving a fancy car, they are just living a happy life and that’s all there is to it!”
The rise of the travel influencers made some Pakistanis uncomfortable. Pakistan had been a British colony within living memory, and until very recently, most western coverage had been negative. Now western travellers had decided Pakistan was worth visiting, and were being treated like saviours. In November 2018, around the time Zu Beck was becoming famous, a photo of Ritchie appeared online and ignited a furious debate on Twitter and on Pakistan’s op-ed pages. The photo showed Ritchie riding a bike in Peshawar, a city in north-western Pakistan where, as elsewhere in the country, women are normally forbidden from cycling because it is seen as immodest.
Why was it, critics asked, that a white American woman was enjoying privileges denied to Pakistani women? And why was a white American woman promoting such an absurdly misleading picture of Pakistan? “The colonisers might have exited this country decades ago, but our need to seek validation from them still hasn’t left our veins,” tweeted the feminist collective Girls at Dhabas. At the time, Ritchie defended herself by saying she wanted to “to encourage a sense of normalcy, promoting peace & progress in Pakistan”. When I asked Ritchie about the controversy, she dismissed it as “a complete lie”. She pointed out that the “photo” was actually a screenshot from her 2015 documentary trailer. She had never denied that the scene was staged, she said. It had been misrepresented by people who had “decided to write a fake article” about her.
Nonetheless, the sense of double standards that angered many Pakistanis – one rule for white women, another for brown – was reinforced two months later, when a feminist rally of women riding bikes in Peshawar was banned by the authorities. (Alex Reynolds, who has Filipino heritage, also noticed the gora complex on her travels. “The first time I went to Pakistan, I had a white boyfriend,” she told me. “Then, people were giving us rides, and food, and gifts and things. When I started travelling alone, that stopped.”)
In January 2019, a particularly clueless would-be influencer emerged. An American woman named Samantha A Gerry, who described herself as a vlogger and model, tweeted: “Will be in #Pakistan – June 2019 – looking for recommendations/things to do from fellow vloggers/couch surfers! Inspired by @CynthiaDRitchie – following you into the unknown, girl!” Within a few hours, she had hundreds of replies and direct messages from prominent Pakistanis – the scions of a prominent Lahore political family, among others – offering to take her to parties during her trip.
More tweets followed. Was there a Starbucks in Peshawar, Gerry wondered. Should she wear a burqa on her travels? She wrote about how beautiful Pakistan was, and threw in some anti-India sentiment for good measure. Her follower count shot up. When journalists pointed out that her profile picture was taken from a stock photography website, Gerry responded: “OH MY GOD! I Just joined Twitter and mention Pakistan and there are so many people spreading all kinds of rumours about me.” Many of her new followers leaped to her defence.
A week later, the Karachi-based comedian, Shehzad Ghias Shaikh, owned up to the hoax. He had created “Samantha A Gerry” to satirise the travel-influencer trend, and in particular Ritchie, who was growing increasingly bullish on social media about the need to promote a “positive image” of Pakistan. “We’re hungry for good news, and when it comes from a white person, it adds more validity,” Shaikh told me. “But our inferiority complex and that neo-colonial mindset makes a dangerous combination.”
In Karachi earlier this year, I met Amtul Baweja and Fahad Tariq, a young married couple who produce travel content on Instagram and YouTube under the name Patangeer, which means “wandering kite” in Urdu. Situated above a beauty salon in an upmarket part of town, their office has the look of a Shoreditch design agency, with stark metal lockers and a large wooden table.
“We love [the foreign influencers] – they kind of put Pakistan on the map for us,” said Tariq. “But there’s no doubt they get privileges we don’t get.”
“White privilege is very true,” Baweja agreed.
The couple have been repeatedly harassed by police while filming videos, even at major tourist sites, such as Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens, or the beach in their home town of Karachi.
“If we try and shoot, we get antagonised and treated like criminals, whereas they get gates opened and red carpets put down for them,” said Tariq.
“Which is good that they’re being hospitable,” said Baweja. “But why not for your own locals, too?”
By 2018, the year of Pakistan’s most recent general election, Ritchie had been based in Islamabad for the best part of a decade. She was enmeshed in the city’s small social scene, populated by a mix of foreigners and wealthy Pakistanis, and its party circuit – staid affairs at embassies, and more raucous events at the spacious homes of expats.
As Ritchie’s public platform grew, so did questions on social media about what she was doing in Pakistan. Her YouTube channel describes her as an “adventurist”, and as Zu Beck and Gabrielle became famous in Pakistan, she was often spoken about by journalists and on social media in the same breath. But the content Ritchie was making had changed, and now bore little resemblance to that of most adventure travellers. Rather than putting out videos gushing over mountain ranges and food markets, she was writing op-eds in Pakistani newspapers about information warfare and arguing with liberals on Twitter. Although she was often referred to as a blogger, she didn’t have a blog. Several academic researchers told me that since the mid-2010s, they had noticed Ritchie attending policing and security conferences around Pakistan. On her social media, she posted occasional photos of herself with military officials and at police training facilities.
Ritchie is vague when discussing her work; she told me that she finds the term influencer “tacky”, and that she works in “strategic communication”. What comes across from speaking to her is a sense of mission – that it is not only incumbent on her personally, but within her power, to change Pakistan’s internal culture and its standing in the world. “I want to reinforce the behaviours that we desire to see in society,” she said. At another point, she said: “My story is more of suffering than anything else, but I believe it to be a worthy cause.”
As the July 2018 election approached, Ritchie became more vocal in her support for Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and of the military. The election campaign, which brought Khan to power, was marred by censorship. Politicians from other parties, including the incumbent PML-N, were arrested, most of them on corruption charges, which they denied. Three news channels were taken off air by the regulator after having broadcast speeches by major political parties opposed to the PTI. Meanwhile, PTI rallies were aired without problems. In her frequent tweets about politics, Ritchie confronted critics of the military, often using language that seemed to echo official rhetoric. As mass protests against military overreach – organised by a grassroots group, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – swept across Pakistan, Ritchie insinuated that the PTM were sympathetic to terrorists, an allegation that had also been made by military officials.
Eva zu Beck in a video she posted from Gwadar, Pakistan in 2019. Photograph: Eva zu Beck
A few months after the election, when a journalist critical of the military accused Ritchie of “propaganda” and doing “consultancy” for the military’s press division, the ISPR, Ritchie tweeted: “Even if I did ‘consult’ for ISPR, so what?? It’s called ‘PR’ for a reason – they do PR, as do ALL world powers.” When some Twitter users asked who was funding the documentary project that she first trailed in 2015, Ritchie’s supporters responded angrily. “Who the hell r u? Someone is showing positive side of Pakistan to the world, does it matter who is paying?” read one tweet.
For people who knew Ritchie socially, there was a disconnect between her charming real-life presence and her often aggressive persona online, where she has accused her critics of acting like “traitors” and told Pakistani feminists to “Get the #FairAndLovely [skin-whitening cream] out of your eyes”. “I’d met her a few times at parties and thought she was nice enough, friendly – then when I looked her up on Twitter I was taken aback,” said a Pakistani acquaintance of Ritchie’s, who lives in Islamabad. “I was like – what is this? Is she on the military payroll or has she seriously drunk the Kool-Aid?”
Part of the reason that people have speculated about Ritchie’s motivations is the fact that, despite being American, her lines of attack are those usually associated with the most conservative, ultra-nationalist Pakistanis. She has criticised human rights activists for not showing national pride, feminists for going too far in their demands, politicians for being immodest. When I pointed out to Ritchie that some of her views were surprising for an American in Pakistan, she hit back: “Not many Americans have travelled the country like I have.” She describes herself as “impartial”, “authentic”, and interested in “the facts on the ground”. “I’m not getting a brief from [the government] and tweeting it. I tweet whatever I want to,” she told me.
The fanbase that has developed around Ritchie can be split into two camps. The first enjoys her travel content, and her sunny portrayals of Pakistan. For the second camp, who actively support the military and spend their time on social media attacking anyone they see as insufficiently patriotic, Ritchie is a useful ally, an outsider who reflects their worldview. “More power to you Cynthia. Keep exposing the filthy culprits who have eaten up this country like mites,” wrote one Twitter user.
In 2019, questions about Ritchie’s links to the army intensified on social media when she posted footage of a trip to Pakistan’s heavily contested tribal areas. She told me that the trip had actually taken place in the run-up to the 2018 election, and that it had been part of an “interview process” at which military officials were “assessing and monitoring me, my experience, and determining my worth and capacity as an individual”, and that afterwards she was offered a big project. It is difficult to know what to make of comments like this, given that at other times Ritchie flat-out denies working for the military.
Having offered this puzzling explanation, Ritchie then dismissed the entire controversy over the pictures as just another fuss about nothing. “Look, if I had anything to hide, I wouldn’t be publishing these things,” she said. She pointed out that anyone who wants to travel to the tribal areas needs army permission: “You can’t access some of these areas without the military.”
When Imran Khan was elected, he took over a country in the midst of an economic crisis, and his ministers saw tourism as an opportunity for recovery. Until the pandemic stalled progress, Pakistan’s tourism push seemed to be gaining momentum. “We spent the last decade fighting a war against terrorism,” Akbar Durrani, the federal information secretary, told me in March. “Now we’ve gone from terrorism to tourism, and we are proud of it.”
One of the key players in this project is Zulfi Bukhari, head of the national tourism board and a close friend of Imran Khan’s. He is a young man with a sharp haircut whose own Instagram page makes him look a bit like an influencer. In March 2020, before the country went into lockdown, I sat in on a meeting between Bukhari and executives from Facebook as they discussed collaborating on a nation-branding project for Pakistan. In his pitch, Bukhari stated with confidence: “This is going to be the coolest thing Pakistan has ever done.”
When we spoke after the meeting, Bukhari talked excitedly about plans to boost tourism. He was impatient when I asked about western influencers. “I think it’s a silly debate really, it’s irrelevant,” he said. “International bloggers appeal to the international crowd.” Yet despite Bukhari’s claims, there is little dispute that much of the content produced about Pakistan is being consumed by Pakistanis, not the foreign tourists that the state is desperate to attract. “It’s an inverted model of image-building – to convince the people inside the country that Pakistan is good,” argues Ayesha Siddiqa, academic and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.
One region where western influencers have been granted extraordinary access is Balochistan, one of the hardest areas of Pakistan to visit. Since Pakistan’s formation in 1947, this south-western province has been home to a separatist insurgency, which has been harshly repressed. Since the most recent uprising in 2007, thousands of people alleged to have links to the separatist movement have disappeared, and more than 1,000 political activists have been killed. But in 2019, the influencer Rosie Gabrielle was allowed to undertake a solo motorcycle tour of the province, and Eva zu Beck has also posted videos from there. (Underneath a YouTube video of her trip, Gabrielle wrote that she was “granted special permission” to travel alone, but insisted that she was “not government-sponsored or funded”.)
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Influencers are often accused of parroting government lines in return for access, but Zayer Hussain, a Pakistani film-maker who worked with Zu Beck on a travel series for Turkish TV, insists that officials are “not pushy” about what you can say. Either way, he sees no problem with this approach. “If somebody is trying to portray Pakistan in a bad way, the information ministry will try to stop them by refusing to grant the NOC [travel permit]. But if you’re doing a good thing, people will help you,” he told me. “It’s a very easy formula.”
Among the places Zu Beck has visited in Balochistan is Gwadar, a remote, heavily militarised city where China is constructing a deep-water port. Both the Pakistani state and private companies have touted Gwadar as “the new Dubai”, and in 2018, one company that sells properties in the city began organising visits for influencers. In one video from her tour, Zu Beck is on a deserted beach with waves lashing the shore. “It’s the most beautiful place,” she says, laughing with delight. “There’s no one here, no one for miles. I just … How can nobody know about this place?” In April 2019, a few months after Zu Beck posted her video, 14 people travelling to Gwadar from Karachi were shot dead after their bus was attacked. The following month, gunmen stormed the five-star hotel where Zu Beck and other members of her delegation had stayed on their visit, murdering five people.
“Expecting all travel bloggers to cover subjects related to politics or national security is a tricky demand,” Zu Beck told me via email, when I asked about the disparity between her videos and the reality on the ground. She pointed out that someone visiting a country for a short time may not have the experience and knowledge to address complex political matters. Although people offering practical guides to travellers had an obligation to address security questions, she said, that wasn’t the kind of content she was making. “People have this idea that I make vlogs in order to promote tourism destinations,” she had told me when we first spoke. “That idea is wrong. My videos are not travel guides, and they are not practical pieces of advice. They are stories. That’s all they are.”
There is nothing remarkable about nations encouraging social media influencers to promote tourism. But in Pakistan, as one valve has opened, another has been closed. Human rights activists and journalists are experiencing unprecedented levels of state harassment. In the run-up to the 2018 election, the journalist Gul Bukhari was on the way to a TV studio one night when her car was intercepted by intelligence officers and she was blindfolded and bundled into another vehicle. She was then driven to a safe house and interrogated for hours. “As well as many other things, they said to me: ‘Why are you working against Pakistan? Take our narrative,’” she told me.
Eventually, Bukhari was released, and soon afterwards – like many others who speak out against the military establishment – she left the country. But leaving Pakistan does not always guarantee safety. Earlier this year, the Pakistani journalist Sajjid Hussain, editor of the Balochistan Times, disappeared from his home in Sweden, and was later found dead in a river. Reporters Without Borders has urged investigators to look into the theory that Pakistani intelligence may be connected to Hussain’s death. In July, a leaked internal government memo revealed that officials had been ordered to “strictly follow the movements and social media accounts” of six Pakistani journalists based abroad, and to tell them to stop their “rhetoric against Pakistan”.
The idea that people are either “for” or “against” Pakistan is a crude binary, but it is one that military spokesmen often use, and it underpins the country’s communication strategy. As a member of the Pakistani diaspora, officials regularly tell me that, being “a daughter of Pakistan”, my journalism should be more positive. It is also a binary that Ritchie often promotes, using hashtags such as #PositivePakistan and tweeting about the need to “show the positive face” of the country.
When we spoke a second time, meeting in a cafe in Islamabad on a rainy spring day this year, I asked Ritchie about allegations that she was working with military authorities. “People assume I work for ISPR [the military’s press division]. I don’t fucking work for ISPR. I freelance, I take on things on a project-to-project basis,” she said. She claimed that this allegation came from “a group of individuals who are anti-Pakistan”, including Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US.
When I spoke to Haqqani, a critic of the military who now lives in self-imposed exile in the US, he sounded irritated: “She would hurl abuse at me for being a traitor to Pakistan, but who is she to be the arbiter? The notion that she loves Pakistan more than Pakistanis who dissent from its policies is preposterous.”
By 2020, most of the travel influencers making content about Pakistan had moved on. After leaving Pakistan last year, Zu Beck has made travel content around the world, including a trip to Syria. She sat out the pandemic lockdown on Socotra, an island off the coast of Yemen.
But Ritchie stayed put. In February 2020, she posted another documentary trailer on Facebook, for a series made with the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s north-western province. In person, Ritchie has a friendly manner, and speaks authoritatively even when she is being vague. When I asked where the series would be airing, we went back and forth for about 10 minutes (“I’ve been approached by a significant network”; “I wanted it to be genuine, me as a citizen creating content”) before eventually establishing it was going to be a web series.
Around the time the new trailer was released, Ritchie’s tweets were becoming increasingly inflammatory. For the last couple of years, Pakistani feminists have held an event on International Women’s Day called the Aurat March (“aurat” means “woman” in Urdu). As the date, 8 March, approached, Ritchie attacked the organisers, who she said were privileged and did not represent normal women in Pakistan. Replying to the inevitable backlash, she tweeted: “In my years in Pakistan (since 2009) the ONE group who’s tried to bully/insult me the most for my opinions/experiences -isn’t the Taliban/Tribals. It’s the Female Desi ‘Liberal’ – same ppl supporting #AuratMarch. The TALIBAN were more tolerant of difference of opinion than this lot.”
I met Ritchie the week after the march, and when I asked about this, she launched into a long explanation about the importance of dialogue with the Taliban. (“I’m not a Taliban sympathiser, I’m looking for fact”; “When we discuss a liberal, what’s your definition of a liberal?”) She was dismissive of the charge that she was setting herself up as a white saviour. “Is there an argument other than ‘colonialist mindset’? I’m one person, give me a break.”
In the weeks that followed, Ritchie increasingly turned her ire on the PPP, one of the main opposition parties to Khan’s ruling PTI. She shared a series of photos showing PPP politicians in supposedly compromising positions – one posing with a skimpily clad waxwork in a museum (“They’re very pious people,” she tweeted, sarcastically.) Then, in late May, she made an extraordinary allegation about Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and PPP politician who was assassinated in 2007: “when her husband cheated, [she’d] have the guards rape the women. Why do women condone this rape culture? Why aren’t the men ever held accountable? Where is the justice system?”
Bhutto is a national heroine, and for many, these unsubstantiated comments were the final straw. Several PPP activists attempted to launch libel claims against Ritchie, although none of these attempts were successful. Soon afterwards, she made a further series of explosive claims. On 5 June, she tweeted that members of the PPP were threatening her because “they know that over the years I have been raped/assaulted by men in the highest ranks of PPP. They don’t want the world to know.” She elaborated on her accusations in a Facebook Live video: “In 2011, I was raped by the former interior minister Rehman Malik,” she said. She went on to make separate accusations that the former federal minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin and ex-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani “physically manhandl[ed]” her.
Cynthia Ritchie talking to press outside court in Islamabad in September. Photograph: 24 News
In the days after Ritchie made her allegations, she appeared on major news networks, going into a level of detail about her allegations that was extremely unusual in a conservative country where any discussion of sex is taboo. Pakistan is a patriarchal society where women are routinely blamed if they are assaulted. Earlier this autumn, there were national protests when a woman was gang-raped after her car broke down and the police chief said publicly that she shouldn’t have been travelling alone at night. Across the country, a vanishingly small number of sexual assaults are reported, and of those, fewer than 3% result in conviction. But as Ritchie’s story made national and then international headlines, the different strands were often conflated: on the one hand, the actual substance of the rape and assault allegations and the endemic culture of sexual harassment in Pakistan, and on the other, Ritchie’s own political affiliations and her place in the country.
On Twitter, many of Ritchie’s followers expressed support, and the hashtag #CynthiaIsPrideOfPakistan trended in the country. While some feminists called for an impartial investigation, others remained conspicuously silent, and some implied that these allegations were politically motivated. Even some of Ritchie’s fans were ambivalent. “When I first encountered Cynthia, I admired her advocacy work to portray Pakistan positively. It was a relief – I thought: ‘This is the image of my country I want to see,’” said one US-based Pakistani, who saw Ritchie giving a talk to an audience of diaspora Pakistanis in the US a few years ago. “But more recently I have questions about her allegations and the other claims she’s made.”
Ritchie denies that her allegations are politically motivated. “My story came out because loved ones all over the world were being harassed by people linked to PPP,” she told me via email recently. “So, no, my accusations were not politically motivated but rather – I’d had enough.” Ritchie said that, after the story broke, “The people, including many in PPP, have been mostly supportive”, but that she also received “hundreds of sexually explicit rape threats, calls, messages from PPP workers”.
All the men accused denied the allegations, and the police have refused to open a criminal investigation, claiming that Ritchie has not produced any evidence to support her allegations of rape and harassment. Ritchie is currently appealing this decision in the Islamabad high court.
As Ritchie pursued her allegations and spoke to the media, investigative journalists in Pakistan began to scrutinise her closely, digging out visas and other documents to try and establish what she was doing there. One such document was a letter that Ritchie wrote in the summer to the Federal Investigation Agency while it was considering whether there was a libel case against her. In it, she said she had been “an active force in promoting Positive Pakistan” and had “worked closely with Counter Terrorism Department (CTD)”, as well as with the police and military. But what drew the most attention was Ritchie’s claim that she had been “investigating” the PTM protest movement “for the last two y ears (with the assistance of supporting agencies and military)” and that “in this process our teams have found links of anti-state activities between PTM and PPP”. This raised more questions than it answered: What teams? What anti-state activities? And given that Ritchie is not a journalist, in what capacity was she investigating?
“There’s a tendency in Pakistan towards conspiracy theory anyway, and given the stuff she says, it’s hardly a leap to think, ‘Oh, the military is behind it all’”, said the acquaintance of Ritchie’s who lives in Islamabad. “It’s easy enough to believe that she was doing film projects for ISPR, but what on earth would it mean for her to investigate PTM? Part of me wonders, is there an element of delusion here, or self-aggrandisement? Or is she just out of her depth?”
When I contacted Ritchie recently about this letter, she insisted that it had been misunderstood. “When I wrote ‘worked with’ it was merely a collaborative effort in terms of travel,” she told me via email. “I was never an employee or consultant – paid or otherwise.” She said that the investigation she referred to was for an independent film that she is making: “I needed clearances to access some of the tribal areas.”
Over the past few months, Ritchie has continued to fight vociferously with her critics on Twitter – calling on her adversaries to support her despite their political differences, and equating herself with “the abused woman & children of Pakistan” – even as she comes under increasing legal pressure. The court case, in which she is arguing that her allegations merit a full police investigation, has been beset by delays. And in September, the Islamabad high court refused to extend Ritchie’s visa, giving her 15 days to leave the country. Pakistan’s visa system is capricious, and refusals or long delays are common, but given that Ritchie had remained in the country for more than a decade, the decision seemed to demonstrate a shift in her political fortune. “She serves [ISPR’s] purpose,” said Haqqani, the former ambassador. “That said, they probably realise that now the controversies outweigh any benefits.”
After the high court’s announcement in September, Ritchie tweeted: “Whether I am in Pakistan or USA I will continue fighting the hypocrisy of Liberals & self proclaimed Human Rights activists of Pakistan. Borders cannot stop me Loving Pakistan & its people who gave me respect and love. I won’t stop fighting for the right cause. Pakistan Zindabad!” (“Long live Pakistan”.) Ritchie’s lawyer told the court that she could not be guaranteed a fair trial in her court case if she was not in the country. The court said that she could stay – for now. But her future hangs in the balance.
“There’s so much more to Pakistan than this devastating maelstrom of bullshit,” Ritchie said to me back in March, reflecting on all the controversies that surrounded her even then. “My hope is to tell the story of the rural areas, the common man and their rich history, so that when I transition to my next phase in life, I can walk away and say: ‘I did this for you.’”
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