Pakistan: Wheels of social change

Ahmad Rafay Alam
Members of Critical Mass in Lahore gather biweekly for a ride that breaks social taboos by including women.

LAHORE, PAKISTAN – In a country where a woman has twice attained the highest elected office of the land, the presence of women in the public sphere has remained sparse.

Until now. The wheels of change may finally be spinning in the eastern city of Lahore where, for the past three months, a biweekly bike ride under the global banner of Critical Mass is weaning the city’s middle classes off their gas-guzzling habits – and breaking social taboos.

Initiated by lawyer and environmental activist Rafay Alam, the event began with a handful of friends gathering every other Sunday outside a tikka shop in the leafy suburb of Cantonment. “We’re trying to raise awareness and remind people of the accessibility of bicycles as a viable means of urban transport,” says Mr. Alam.

From humble beginnings, Critical Mass in Lahore now attracts several dozen participants, many of whom are women.

That’s no ordinary feat in conservative Pakistan. Here, the norm for women passengers on motorbikes is to ride sidesaddle, and the idea of a woman riding her own bicycle has been considered taboo since former ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq introduced Islamization reforms in the 1970s.

That history hasn’t turned off everyone, though. “Sometimes men stop and stare or pass astonished comments like ‘Hey, those are girls!’ but there haven’t been any problems,” says Zahra Syed, one of the participants.

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