Arabela Arpi, a 21-year-old American-German student at Duke University, North Carolina, describes her first visit to Pakistan as a romantic encounter: anticipation, exploration, and, finally, love.
“I first came here in 2019 to visit my fiance’s family, who live in Lahore,” Arpi told VICE World News over a Zoom call from Durham, North Carolina. “Travelling to Pakistan was unlike any other destination, where everything is catered to tourists. In Pakistan, people follow their own traditions, wear their traditional clothes and eat their traditional food. It’s culturally vivid.”
She was also aware of Pakistan’s image in popular culture, with news of security concerns, and being listed among the world's most unsafe countries. But Arpi, with an Instagram following of more than 23,000 and a prolific travel blog, saw a chance to go “off the beaten path” – mostly solo, and in areas foreigners can’t easily access. She also followed Western female influencers, who posted about travelling in Pakistan with comfort, safety and privileged access. This is despite a 2021 survey showing that 80 percent of Pakistanis think women aren’t safe in their own country.
On July 17, while visiting the city of Dera Ghazi Khan in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Arpi said she was threatened, extorted and then “brutally” gang raped by two men she had befriended during her previous travels, one of whom filmed the act and threatened to leak it. A case of rape and filming obscene acts was registered by the Border Military Police on July 19. Arpi also said she was misled to believe she had permission to stay in the city, which has a history of militancy and usually isn’t included in the cities tourists can visit with their visas. A trial is underway, with one accused still at large.
Pakistan reports an average of 11 rapes a day; fewer than 3 percent of those rapes lead to court convictions. But sexual violence against a foreigner is extremely rare.
Arpi’s case has put the spotlight on Western influencers who explore undiscovered parts of Pakistan for hundreds of thousands followers, without mentioning the precautions locals take traveling to areas with poor tourism infrastructure.
In the billion-dollar global influencer market, Pakistan’s tourism provides a complex picture, with alleged links to the state and military, and mounting criticisms of foreigners whitewashing lived realities.
“Foreign vloggers often paint a much more positive picture about how easy it is to travel around Pakistan than it really is,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the U.S. think tank Wilson Center, told VICE World News. “This poses risks for people unfamiliar with Pakistan who come in from abroad.”
Over the last four years, Arpi, who holds both German and American passports, said she travelled extensively through private travel agencies and “friends” she made online. Her Instagram posts provide a footprint of her experiences: From the desert province of Balochistan, to the bustling cities like Karachi, to the colourful Sufi shrines in Sindh. She is often seen in traditional Pakistani clothes while extolling facts about the location, almost like a tourism manual. She clarified she’s never been on a government-sponsored tour.
Arpi met the man she accuses of raping and blackmailing her, Muzamil Sipra, on Couchsurfing, where he has a verified profile. The social media website that connects travellers across the world has a history of being misused by men for sexually violating women.
Sipra, said Arpi, claimed he had connections in high places, including the Pakistani intelligence, through which he allegedly gained access to restricted locations. She also said he intimidated her by showing photos of him with guns. The second man Arpi accuses of rape, Aazan Safdar, is still at large and applied for pre-arrest bail on August 6. Sardar has been posting on TikTok, including one where he asks his followers to support him during the impending trial. On August 10, his bail request was denied.
VICE World News tried to contact officials in charge of the case but did not immediately receive a response.
Arpi said she managed to leave after promising the accused she would not report the incident. “The rape was one thing,” Arpi said. “But what happened after was equally tormenting.” Arpi said that in Lahore, she tried to register a police report and get a medical examination but officials refused, saying she needed to go back to Dera Ghazi Khan. By the time she arrived back, it had been 36 hours since the rape.
“I was in the same clothes for nearly three days,” she said. At the hospital, Arpi said she was subjected to the two-finger test, which was declared unconstitutional by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year. She added that even though she had bruises on her body, the medical practitioner didn’t mention them in the medico-legal report. Her DNA test came out on July 28, confirming the rape 11 days after it happened.
“The process showed that if someone of my kind of privilege can struggle to get justice, imagine what happens to all the women in Pakistan who don’t have the same resources that we do,” said Basil Khan, Arpi’s fiance. The couple left for the U.S. shortly afterwards to pursue the case and the U.S. embassy in Pakistan is closely monitoring and supporting the case.
“The process showed that if someone of my privilege can struggle to get justice, imagine what happens to all the women in Pakistan who don’t have the same resources that we do.”
Pakistan’s tourism industry is worth $22 billion, according to one estimate. In the past, Pakistani officials have admitted foreign influencers were more valuable in boosting tourism than local creators. Pakistan eased visa rules and increased the tourism budget exponentially over the years. At the same time, this foreign influencer army has risen into prominence, citing government initiatives in their posts and receiving open support from political parties.
“Over the years, we’ve seen them make a lot of money for content that is vacuous and generalises their own experience just for clicks and likes,” Hassaan Bin Shaheen, a Pakistani lawyer and comedian, told VICE World News. “You see it in the way they romanticise the global south, prey on the mass nationalist sentiments, confirm their political bias and play into the state narrative.”
Last year, Shaheen and fellow comedian Bassam Shazli’s satirical video series “Global Nomads”, in which the duo donned blonde wigs and pretended to be foreigners reviewing Pakistan, went viral. In one video, they’re seen at Pakistan’s biggest landfill, where one of them equates the stink of garbage to “the stank of resilience.” Shaheen said that many fell for their sarcasm merely because they spoke with a fake American accent.
Kugelman attributes Pakistan’s fixation with foreign influencers to its “chronically troubled” economy, because of which tourism is seen as a source of much-needed revenue. Another factor, Kugelman added, is strategic. “There’s a desire to tell a positive story about Pakistan’s image to shape global perceptions,” he said. “Yet the irony here is that these influencers get the most attention from Pakistanis themselves, and not from the intended audience: the international community.”
Pakistan isn’t the only country using this playbook. China has a history of enlisting Western vloggers to whitewash its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Reports show Western influencers acquiescing to authoritarian regimes with egregious human rights records, to make money off of state-approved tourism narratives.
A prominent Western face in Pakistan’s vlogging ecosystem is Eva Zu Beck, a Polish blogger with nearly a million Instagram followers, and 1.52 million YouTube subscribers, who is often accused of being part of Pakistan’s propaganda machine.
Zu Beck declined to be interviewed by VICE World News but previously told Forbes that the perception that Pakistan is unsafe for women is wrong, and said Pakistan could be the “world’s number one travel destination.” “People tend to chuckle when I tell them this, but there’s nothing to laugh about,” she told Forbes. “[This] country has the ultimate potential.”
Alex Reynolds, a solo backpacker who runs tours in Pakistan, told VICE World News that some “solo” influencers mislead their followers by not disclosing that they’re with a crew, and possibly sponsored by the Pakistani state. “It benefits the influencers because they get money and access for their content,” said Reynolds. “It obviously benefits the people in power for portraying a soft image.”
In 2019, Reynolds was invited to participate at a state tourism event, where her presentation on the problems of tourism in Pakistan and the irresponsible social media depictions was censored by the organisers. She posted her presentation online anyway, and it went viral.
“It is extremely difficult to speak up in Pakistan,” said Reynolds. “People here aren’t receptive to criticism. It’s understandable that Pakistan has been subjected to negative portrayals for so long, but we need to see both sides of the coin.”
Shaheen pointed to the need to address South Asia’s colonial hangover, or “white saviour complex,” often seen in previously-colonised Asian countries wherein white foreigners are taken a little too seriously.
“What we’re seeing in Pakistan is ‘travel colonialism,’” he said. “It's when white influencers come to developing countries and exploit people’s biases to make a good bang for their buck. Instead of colonising bodies like the old days, they’re colonising minds.”
“What we’re seeing in Pakistan is ‘travel colonialism. It's when white influencers come to developing countries and exploit people’s biases to make a good bang for their buck.”
Last year, Nas Daily, a wealthy Arab-Israeli blogger, shut down his operations in the Philippines after his company was accused of profiting off of an indigenous tattoo artist in the country. The 30-year-old, who is also accused of normalising Israeli occupation, has been likened to a neocolonialist who profits off of local cultures.
When it comes to the narrative of women’s safety, Aneeqa Ali, a young Pakistani solo woman traveller, who runs her own travel agency, told VICE World News that she appreciates the rising interest of foreign travellers, especially solo women, in Pakistan, but would caution against the image some Western influencers portray. “Tourism is an informal industry, and in a country like Pakistan, everyone needs to take precautions,” she said. “It’s not a piece of cake as these influencers’ videos might suggest.”
Reynolds, who has been travelling in Pakistan for six years, said she has faced physical harassment too. “But not to this level,” she said. “[Arpi’s] is a rare case of a foreigner experiencing such violent assault.”
Arpi said that she was aware of the lack of safety for women when she first arrived in Pakistan in 2019. “But when I followed these solo women travellers having great experiences, I thought it must be okay,” she said. “Of course now I can say it’s difficult, not just because of harassment and safety, but because there is so little tourism infrastructure in the country.”
For now, Arpi is determined to make an example out of her case. Last week, Arpi’s lawyers petitioned Pakistan’s home ministry to form a joint investigation team to fast-track the case.
“I want to pursue this case no matter what the cost is, no matter what I have to risk for it, because this justice won’t just be for me, but for all the victims of abuse and assault in Pakistan,” said Arpi.
UPDATE: This story was edited for clarity.
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