Raheela Qaisr watched paralysis slowly seep into her mother’s bones, turning them into stone. Then a tumour latched on to her father’s lungs. Her basic problem, was not monetary – though she calls her school-teacher salary ‘average’ – and it wasn’t emotional – she’s a middle child; her sisters live with their own nuclear families but the support is there – it was mobility.
How does someone go from doing a 7am-2pm job, taking ill parents to various doctors’ appointments, buying the medicines and groceries, paying the bills, ferrying parcels and doing all the other millions of things progeny must do, without a way to travel?
The 35-year-old recalls the old days in an interview with Gulf News. She would bike on tiny slivers of road near her house. The back lanes were her territory. But if she had to go further than the facilities this transport afforded her, she was crippled. She had to “use vans, local buses” to ferry her mother who has been ill for over 10 years. “[It was a] waste of time, money,” she says in an interview with Gulf News. “Economically it is very difficult to arrange all these things.”
Women on Wheels campaign
Fortunately, in 2016, Qaisr found herself with a new option. She heard about the Women on Wheels programme, which trains and subsidizes scooter-buys for women in Pakistan. She could now learn how to ride on main roads – and so take her parents to their appointments, whenever the need arose.
My own sisters used to travel with my father on a scooter back from school and I used to take a bus, because we didn’t have a car. So I used to think, why are the roads not made safe for women so they can take a bus with me?
It’s the brainchild of Salman Sufi, International public policy and gender reforms specialist, for whom the project was a personal rebellion against archaic patriarchal behavior. As a child, he recalled in an interview with Gulf News, “My own sisters used to travel with my father on a scooter back from school and I used to take a bus, because we didn’t have a car. So I used to think, why are the roads not made safe for women so they can take a bus with me or take their own scooter home? That’s what was always in my mind.”
The WoW initiative years later, he traces to the observation.
Peeking over the great divide
Sufi was also very affected by the disparity he saw in the treatment of ‘the haves and have-nots’; the divide, he says was very clear to even a young man on the streets of Lahore. “Especially when it came to women, there was a different criteria for a woman who was growing up in a lower-middle class or a middle-class background and different criterion for the men who had contacts.
“But when it came to violence and mobility and other issues, they [the women] were all in the same category, whether they were being abused, or they facing the same system that was disenfranchising them all the way. I used to see that the higher ministers [had to get involved] just to register a simple police complaint on behalf of a woman because the police was not listening to them, so that used to make me very [angry].”
By women, for women
The system, he was convinced, had to change. This was, he would later find out, also the germination of another pilot plan, one with major legal ramifications. Post the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act, which he drafted in 2016 as part of Director General of the Strategic Reforms Unit of the Government of Punjab, he worked to create Violence Against Women Centers (VAWC). [He credits the political support of Shehbaz Sharif for playing catalyst to the reforms.] These offices are staffed by women, for women. “The police department is female, the medic staff is female, the psychological rehabilitation staff is female, so [for an abuse survivor], the system is in place for her to record her complaint without any intimidation,” he explains.
Among the women who benefitted from the formulation of the system is K.B. who is 23 years old. When she walked into the centre early this year, K.B. was distraught and inconsolable. She had been beaten, physically and verbally, and spoke about economic abuse. But the reason for her tears was visceral; her children – her breastmilk-drinking five month old and two year old – had been snatched away by her spouse. Meetings with other family members, she recalled, usually ended in blood and brutality, pleas for her children fell on deaf ears. Left with little recourse, K.B. went into the centre. Since the complaint, K.B. has been reunited with her babies – and has found therapy a way to deal with her husband’s flare-ups.
For the late model Qandeel Baloch, the VAWC has meant justice. As a response to her so-called honour killing, a centre was not only set up in Multan but also it was instrumental in chasing a verdict. Three years after her murder Baloch’s brother, Muhammad Waseem, was sentenced to 25 years in jail under section 311 of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Change-makers who suffer
The road to empowerment has been laid not just with sweat and tears, it has often been cemented by the blood of people willing to make a change. When the Punjab Women Against Violence Act was being mulled over, it was Sufi who was at the receiving end of rage. “It turned pretty volatile. I was attacked as well, you know, there were threats thrown at my house, there were people trying to hurt me and my family because I drafted the law. But we stood our ground, because we knew that if you are doing some revolutionary step, which does not cause opposition, that means you are simply towing the line of status quo, you are not really changing anything,” he explains.
To expose ‘raw nerves’ was encouraged in the Sufi family. “That’s what I learned [as a child], because my family used to always talk about injustices and how things need to be changed and how we need to contribute,” he says.
We stood our ground, because we knew that if you are doing some revolutionary step, which does not cause opposition, that means you are simply towing the line of status quo, you are not really changing anything.
It’s a drive that has won him many plaudits, one of which is the Mother Teresa award from neighbouring country India. “It was a very humbling experience and a heartening experience that brings India and Pakistan together and it actually encouraged me to launch my movement simultaneously in India and Pakistan,” he says of his 2018 recognition.
That spirit he imbibed at his mother’s knee and by stealing away previous books from his father’s collection. Sufi’s lineage harks back to renowned Persian poet Tabassum. He began to read poetry with a social conscience in grade six. “I used to read that book by putting it between my books in school, because somehow Faiz [Ahmed Faiz] saab’s poetry somehow gave me direction, because he wrote about the pain of [the people of] Pakistan, what they go through,” he says. “I actually joined government college Lahore only because Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sufi Tabassum went there,” he added.
The way forward was cemented when he travelled abroad. “When I went to the US, it was an entirely different system [and] society, so that really helped me look at things from a different perspective. It also encouraged me, if you have the opportunity and the patience to deliver, then a society like the US allows you to do so, so it shouldn’t be limited to US. In Pakistan and India it is much harder but it is worth it to give it your best shot and you can bring change into the lives of millions of people who have been deprived because of decades-old system of hierarchy and politics over patriarchy,” he says.
His return to Pakistan was energized by his need for change.
Among the initiatives he has kickstarted in the past six years are:
The founding of Shehar-e-Khamoshan, or City of Silent. Noticing that people were making a business out of death – charging exorbitant amounts from grief-stricken people – he put together a project whose members “they provide all services, burial related and cremation for non-Muslims, so you make one phone call and they do everything for you,” he says.
Changing textbooks: “On a grass-roots level, I strongly believe it [change, awareness] starts at the family level and it starts with textbooks, so when I was with the government we were able to successfully add chapters about violence against women, so we teach them now in grades 9 and 11 and 8, so we gradually tell women what are women rights and violence is not the way and what kinds of rights women have.”
The idea is to create a lesson that makes itself redundant. “You can develop as many programmes as you like, but if you keep on producing the same kind of citizens, who need these kind of programmes because they are still getting abused, still getting bullied, still getting hammered because of the patriarchy and the misogyny then you can have a centre at every corner of the street but it still will not solve the problem.” Education and massive outreach programme is the best way to go about it.
Public toilets: “I am working on female public toilets, across Pakistan, but it’s not just limited to Pakistan, I’m also in active conversation with renowned activist in India as well,” he adds.
Sweepers are Superheroes: Sanitation workers in Pakistan do not have safety gear, so they go into toxic enviornments without any precautions, he says. They die because of the poisonous gasses they inhale in the sewers, “so we started this movement to train them properly and get them gear, and get them decent wages.”
The row over privacy
The movement isn’t against prosecuting people engaging public displays of affection. “There’s a law against public indecency so they should be charged with that but that does not give the right to the administration of that area to leak those footage. Secondly, how would they feel if a mother was breast feeding a child is being recorded or a woman adjusting her clothes is being recorded, or a small girl who is wearing a frock is being recorded for a pervert’s purposes. It’s not just about intimacy, it’s about basic privacy,” he explains.
When you ask Sufi about his own country’s government, his reaction is lukewarm. “I think they can do a lot better, but I think they are focus is on the wrong thing. Their focus should be on developing projects and the continuation of the projects that were done by the previous government.”
Basic needs need to be met. Like mobility, Qaiser, whose Women on Wheels’ experience has given independence, will tell you. Right before she rides her bike on the busy streets of Lahore, to get on with her day.