Pakistan. I’m a woman, I can prove it.

On a recent trip to Pakistan, I traveled to a remote desert region in the south called Cholistan, a land of semi-nomadic tribes where there were no roads at all. The day was a scorcher, well above 100F. We arrived at a desperate little enclave—a village of sorts. It was midday, so the sun was unbearable. Everyone was tucked away into any patch of shade they could find. My guide Raania and I joined a group of women who were doing embroidery work inside a mud hut. It was family time, mouths and hands moving in the quiet industry of weaving and embroidering.

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photo by Annie Griffiths Belt

I have never felt homelier in my life, than on that day. Although they were incredibly poor, these women were each dressed in the flowing tunics and delicate shawls of their culture. The colors were vivid oranges and yellows and greens that only silk can hold. I sat in khaki pants, a long-sleeve cotton t-shirt, and a really bad scarf. As we passed the midday hours laughing and pantomiming, one of the women finally asked if I was a woman or a man. I grabbed my breasts as proof, which caused peels of laughter. When I told them I had two children, they really hooted, surprised that any man would have me.

As evening approached, children emerged from their shady hiding places and moved off in search of firewood. Raania and I were so far from any town that we knew we would need to sleep in the desert. But the villagers asked us to stay with them. The teenage daughter of the village elder began to cook a simple meal. It has always touched me that throughout the world, people who have nothing seem to give everything—the best tea cup, the biggest piece of bread, the seat closest to the fire. Meanwhile, her brothers moved the two best beds in the house out into the courtyard. The little ones piled blankets and pillows atop the beds, and then climbed up on the beds with us, watching us, transfixed, as we ate our soup and bread.

After we finished and it was time to sleep, the village elder asked if we would like some music. When we nodded yes, a small group of men with handmade stringed instruments and drums filed into the courtyard, sat in a semicircle around us and began to play. Their songs were soft and mysterious. Peacocks gathered on the thatch roofs around us to listen. Overhead the constellations pulsed across the desert night. The harshness of the day melted away and we slept.