I am early for my appointment, but here I am outside a modest house in Cantt in Lahore. Zar Aslam opens her gate and I am taken aback by her height. Somewhat intimidated and surprised that she is letting me in herself, I am still collecting my thoughts, when she holds out her hand and gives me a firm handshake welcoming me to her home.
She suggests we sit in the garden and as I follow her, I spy two pink rickshaws parked in the driveway. In the garden, a lady is sitting waiting for Aslam to rejoin her and resume their conversation.
I take a seat opposite the two women and become a silent observer to a conversation that lasts nearly 30 minutes. There is a striking contrast between Aslam and her guest, who I soon learn is called Parveen. Aslam is wearing white capris, a pink polo (there was a lot of pink in the air that day) and flip flops, her hair loosely tied and there is a bright pop of tangerine on her lips. Parveen, who is one of the beneficiaries of the Pink Rickshaw Scheme, is wearing a shalwaar kameez, chappals and a large black dupatta.
Parveen seems to be experiencing some trouble with the engine of her rickshaw. However, the problem turns out not to be the engine but the tracker. The issue is resolved, Aslam turns to me and says “we have finished our conversation right on time, it’s 2:00 p.m. now, so let’s begin!”
I don’t know much about Aslam’s personal or professional life other than the fact that she is the CEO and Founder of the Environment Protection Fund – and that she recently launched the Pink Rickshaw Scheme. A quick search on LinkedIn the night before yielded the fact that Aslam has over 20 years corporate experience as a senior executive working for technology companies based in the Silicon Valley. These companies (Flexion, IBM, LGS Wireless, Nortel, ROLM, Siemens, Tatung) “range in size from small startup ventures to blue chip firms.”
The first thing I ask is about her experience in Silicon Valley.
“I loved Silicon Valley; I was doing development work all over the world; I think I conducted business in at least 20 countries. The experience taught me a lot, because I learnt from the big guys. You learn your basics from structured organisations and I had the chance to apply this experience to other startups.”
She then adds “I have always believed everybody should get a chance to be in the driving seat.”
I ask where her commitment to women’s empowerment came from, because given her professional background, she could be making plenty of money.
“I have always felt a calling of sorts to help society, and while I was working I did voluntary work for Habitat for Humanity. You can’t always be focused on yourself alone.”
She speaks about “building homes for people” and specifically a trip to Bangladesh where they built over 20 houses. “Brick by brick” I ask? Yes she says “with our hands.”
“I found it very gratifying because when you are in the corporate world your mind is constantly functioning at top speed and there are times when you need to take a break from it all.”
Listening to me and Aslam chat, Parveen smokes a cigarette, and when she is done she stubs it out on the chair and throws it next to a plant. Aslam continuing to speak, picks up the cigarette saying “it is a force of habit, I can’t leave anything on the ground I have to dispose of it myself.”
Laughing and apologetic Parveen says she will throw it away herself; Aslam hugs her and says she will do it herself.
Resuming our conversation, I ask why she named her scheme the ‘Pink’ Rickshaw Scheme – and could it perhaps be viewed as a gender stereotype.
“It could be purple, it could be yellow, I don’t believe in stereotypes. Pink popped in my head when I thought about how women love pink, so why not a pink rickshaw.”
The idea for the scheme formed in her mind when she saw an announcement from a group calling for ‘16 days of activism’. She wondered why 16 days: why not continue beyond that?
“It was then that the idea of the Pink Rickshaw Scheme came to me. I made out a proposal and sent it expecting nothing. They didn’t take to the idea, and decided to fund seminars and talks, which in my opinion are a total waste. Talking only gets you so far, I don’t believe in people who talk and don’t do anything.”
“Who” she asks “is doing enough for the ordinary woman?”
“Anyway, I sat on my idea for a long time and then decided to do something about it. I sent the proposal to all the people on my contact list and two days later I received a call from a well known corporation.”
Although matters did not materialise, she eventually managed to get her Pink Rickshaw Scheme out on to the streets with funding from friends and family, however it had to be scaled down significantly and there are currently just two rickshaws in circulation. However, Aslam hopes to increase this number as more funds become available.
“We are not making these women into social cripples by handing them everything. We are turning them into entrepreneurs able to work and provide for themselves. The most important thing is to give them a chance.”
I mention the unsafe environment for women on the roads and the chances of being easily bullied by male drivers.
“We underestimate the men in our country, I drove these rickshaws myself – and yes, some men were a little taken aback, but they carried on with their business, and some even gave me the thumbs up.”
She adds that in less urbanised parts of Lahore, women drive “ghadda gaaris” (donkey carts) and it is a socially accepted occupation, so why should men object to a woman driving a rickshaw? In her opinion driving a rickshaw is as safe as women driving cars and the numbers there are increasing every day.
Aslam’s goal is to make women independent. She realises it will be an uphill task and she wishes the government would support ideas like hers.
“I do all the ground work myself. I specify to the manufacturers how these rickshaws have to be designed; windows, doors, everything. “
I ask if she plans on expanding the scheme to the rest of Punjab and even Sindh and Karachi.
“We are working on Karachi and with the right kind of support I would like to expand.”
Few of us ever look beyond the rickshaws we see on the roads, to the amount of hard work that goes into producing them and the fact that there is a person inside each one making a living by driving them.
At the end of our conversation, I have a new-found respect for rickshaws and their drivers.
“Every time we choose a beneficiary, I tell her there is an opportunity cost because it means there is another woman out there who didn’t get it and a family she cannot support. So when you do well, give back to society, help others – this is how we grow.”
Aslam is a woman of many facets. She has a tinkling laugh and her abrupt answers are straightforward. This is a woman who is unafraid and does not mind getting her hands dirty or fighting her own limitations along with those of society.
Izza Khalid is a PR professional.