Zar Aslam – Putting Women in the Driving Seat


DSC_0144Zar Aslam, the brains behind initiatives like The Environment Protection Foundation (TEPF) & Pink Rickshaw,  is trying to show an alternative narrative without denying the existing problems. The journey of TEPF started at the end of a six month sabbatical that Ms. Aslam undertook after the 2008 recession that hit the United States, not even sparing the home of Silicon Valley, California, the city she had called home for most of her adult life. Instead of staying in the depressed environment she decided to go on a ‘walk about’, which brought her to Pakistan as well where her mother was based. Here she travelled just having fun.

During this period she discovered her strength which was working with children and being involved in out-door activities. In addition to that she wanted to do something about the fact that the country has been turned into a landfill. All of this resulted in the creation of TEPF.

Courtesy : FB Page

Ms. Zar’s came in the limelight because of her Pink Rickshaw Initiative with the aim of empowering women. This does not fit in the overall mission of her organization. Someone suggested that she apply for a grant and she wanted to pick something that would have a sustainable and a long term impact. The issue of women transportation hit her and this is how the idea of the Pink Rickshaw was born.

After months of planning and exploring many options, Lahore finally saw the Pink Rickshaw rally on 10th October, 2015 which was applauded by people from all circle of life. After the initial soft launch, Zar Aslam had to go through a lot of struggle to get the Pink Rickshaw Programme up and running, the financial limitation was just one problem among the plethora of hurdles that Zar and her team had to overcome in order to roll this initiative out.

Image Courtesy : EPA

Image Courtesy : EPA

The bureaucracy showed its usual inefficient side. Despite all her efforts, she could not get an appointment with the relevant authorities. When some fifty phone calls didn’t work she decided to go and park the rickshaw outside the office in order to get noticed but without success. Succumbing to the reference culture when she finally got through, she was told she needed a permit. In the end however, they did it with their motto ‘Persistence is the key’ and an infectious smile on their face.

At the moment there are five rickshaws that they have and they have been funded by individuals, friends and family. Additionally, they opted for crowdfunding through which women from across the globe donated according to their means. It just showed that women were willing to help empower other women across geographical boundaries.

The intention behind the rally was to spread awareness among the general public, use it as a source of advertising, as they project can’t afford to opt for traditional advertising means and to engage the media.

“We wanted the media to be engaged, so that women and men all over Pakistan could see that this was possible. Women could visualize that if others can drive a rickshaw so can they and that there is no shame in it.”

Ms. Aslam and her team were able to achieve what they intended to from this rally.

DSC_0143The proof of this is that after the rally two women came forward to take up the Pink Rickshaw. One of the women had seen it on TV and after asking around as to where she could find these people in the end reached them. The other women had recently taken up driving a regular rickshaw which was some ten years old and now she would be getting a brand new one and she is quite excited about it.

As per their procedure the women are given driving lessons for the Pink Rickshaw after which they are helped with the process of securing a driving license. In order to further help these women the team is in the middle of drafting a complete manual that will help the female drivers to understand the technical side of this rickshaw. As a measure of security and in order to monitor the progress of these vehicles, tracking devices will be installed in them as well.

The learning curve is a pretty steep one when it comes to taking forward programmes like this. One gets to know about the little things about the system that are not generally known. For instance, for people over 50 one has to get a medical certificate in order to get a driving license.

None of these women previously had a bank account and the bank refused to open one as they are not employed and failed to tell them that they could open one if they could show that they were going to be self-employed. Therefore, helping them open a bank account and writing the required applications is also the task Ms. Zar’s team has taken up.

“The concept is not just about driving a rickshaw but we want them to be fully empowered so they are like any other regular citizen, mature enough to handle their money and go about carrying their own transactions.”

It is important to celebrate these women and recognize their courage. Once they are finally ready with everything to roll out their Pink Rickshaws, the team plans to mark the event in presence of these women family and friends.

12132648_702237703209640_4453724131127437343_oTalking about the involvement of the civil society in her work, Ms. Zar shared that the team never approached anyone directly to join it. All the initial awareness was through social media. Activist and renowned celebrity Nadia Jamil approached her after reading about the initiative online and the story done by My Voice Unheard. Her involvement helped spread the word to a great deal given her massive following. An additional achievement that we can credit to her is that she was able to convince Ms. Zar to start using Twitter to get more traction for her amazing work.

“She is a celebrity, she is busy, but she has a bleeding heart something happens and she rushes there. Truly an activist who really gives her time. On Eid she was at SOS Village, a day people prefer to spend with their families and close friends only. I have deep respect and love for her.”

Admitting that she can’t say enough good things about Nadia, she added that she is very committed to the causes she takes up and adds a lot of enthusiasm and energy in them. Above all her biggest strength is her empathy for others.

The crowd funding campaign for The Pink Rickshaw is still live, those who would like to contribute and get involved with the organization can contact TET or drop a line with us and we will connect you with this amazing individual and her team.