Last week I took my children to Model Town Park for a picnic, and what a lovely time we had! The park is huge and tidy; the grass is trim, the trees are lush and the paths well-tended. Litter was minimal and everyone there wasóO rarest of rarities!óminding their own business. There were walkers, joggers, sitters-under-trees and drinkers-of-Fantas. Nobody leered at our little party on a blanket under a tree, no beggars approached to whine a few rupees out of us and guilt our token foreigner and nobody whistled or sang a ditty as they passed by. It was closest to perfect being in a public space in Lahore could possibly be, and I tip my hat to the board that runs Model Town park.
We generally tend to shy away from being in public spaces. We scurry from pillar to post in our cars because our public transport is, by and large, fiendish to use (I do not envy the poor ladies who have to squash themselves into the front seat of a wagon), and our class striations expressly forbid us climbing into a rickshaw or onto a bicycle. The anomalies that do are promptly assumed to be bluestocking NGO types or adventurous (and poor) college students. It is perceived to be a bohemian kind of free-spirited thing, catching a rickshaw and tootling down Mall Road. I had a friend who lived in the Cantonment and would walk all around it, sporting a big hat, her toddler in a pushchair and their dog trotting alongside. Anyone who saw her on the sidewalk would have assumed she was a foreigner for being so comfortable navigating her neighbourhood on foot.
The class structures of our society pervade our approach to our cities in a dual way though. People who have the option of not having to take the bus would never do it because it is so uncomfortable, not only physically but socially as well. Someone who went to college with me would regularly take a bus that would go all over the city, and even while sitting in a segregated bus, in an ordinary shalwar kameez, she was frequently the object of scorn and audible derision. Other women bullied her for taking the bus and evidently seeming too upper-middle class to do so. Members of Critical Mass, the group that cycles around Lahore every Sunday, report the same. Other people on the roads are astonished to see a motley crew of people cycling in pairs, chatting and generally having a good time out in the open. On cycles! Even girls! Some people make their amazement quite well known, giggling and smirking and sometimes being sleazy, but the general reaction is always one of bemused surprise. If you can afford not to, why on earth would you deliberately cycle anywhere? Itís quite the damned if you do, damned if you donít scenario: first people judge you and call you a burger for not taking public transport, and then if you do they mock you for trying to be like other people. You can never win anything in Pakistan.
Itís hard to be in public spaces because other people make it uncomfortable for you. Itís because they make you feel like you donít belong there, which is utter rubbish. Everyone has the right to wander around Lawrence Gardens when they feel like it. It is not the sole province of couples and jobless louts doing shughal with their chums. Everyone has the right to walk down the road to their nearest shop and get whatever it is they need. Itís a vicious cycle; our public transport and pedestrian situation never improves because the people who have the power to improve it never ever use them. If the Messrs. Sharif were ever to cycle down Mall Road on a hot, sunny afternoon they would instantly realize the enormous difference shady trees make to the temperature of a street, and would perhaps stop planting useless date palms on main thoroughfares. Cycling or walking on a shade-less road like Main Boulevard is like dancing on a tawa: flat, hot and unpleasant. The same goes for something as basic as a sidewalk. If youíve noticed, D.H.A has none. There are no sidewalks, which implies that the authorities have basically refused to acknowledge that anyone would ever walk anywhere in D.H.A. Which is of course patently untrue, and so the hapless people who do venture forth on foot have to gingerly step along the edge of the road whilst traffic screams past, honking fiercely (the hierarchy of the road is ruthless, and pedestrians are the serfs in it).
The only thing left to do is to reclaim our city, and the only way to do it is by going out into it. The MNA that you vote for at election time is meant to address your civic concerns about your area, ignore the guffaws and the incredulous looks and go forth. Take your children to the neighbourhood park and let them jump in the dreadful communal bouncy castles that wave grimily in some of the larger ones. Plan more picnics at the park and, broadening your horizons, playdates at the zoo or the museum. Go walking. We are very easily trapped inside the bubbles of our routines and our familiar places, but the more we engage with our cities in a real way, the more civic sense we will develop. Itís difficult to care about uncovered drains or overflowing garbage dumpsters when you canít smell them inside your air-conditioned car. You donít know whether stray dogs are feral in your area until you go walking around it, or whether there are trees that need saving from over-zealous WAPDA people hacking at them to make room for cables (why they canít just go around the trees I have never understood). We canít remove ourselves from the equation, and we are too often removed without our permission. This city belongs to all of us, and itís time we belonged to it too.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.