Utopia for a day

The Friday Times | Jan 19, 2007

Imaduddin Ahmed’s  week

Regular readers will know that my luck runs short when I enter public spaces in Lahore. Ironically enough, I’ve never had trouble at protests or elections.

Yet I found myself to be the proverbial moth to the incandescent flame last Sunday as Annie Aunty, Sarah and Julia came to pick Amme (I now live with my repatriated mother) for the Lahore marathon. I’ve had too much fun revelling in Berkeley and San Francisco street festivals and open air concerts to be deterred by a couple of ugly incidents. Besides, last year’s government-sponsored marathon held good memories. I found myself rolling out of bed to join the party.

As we waited in the holding area for the 5 km family ‘race’ to begin, young men sporting yellow Punjab University caps satirised the chants of mullahs. Their horseplay, making human pyramids, lightened the mood. An organiser trying to make himself heard over the tannoy must have given them 42 ‘final warnings’ about the use of police dundas if they didn’t stop disgracing their university, their city and country and spoiling the event for families. The threat never materialised. To be fair to the boys, they only really acted like idiots when they started throwing water bottles in the air, and they were quickly stopped from doing so by plain clothes organisers and other participants, such as my mother.

I discovered a cute three year old niece with her parents and grandfather, all smiles and ready to go. Women were here on their own as well as in mixed company, some of them covering their heads and a couple donning the hijab. Peppered here and there were LUMS and BNU cosmopolitan faculty and SOS village children had a solid presence as well. In short, people from a wide variety of walks of life had come to share the same space and enjoy themselves in some light exercise. Wheelchair users were absent from the family race because there were separate races for the handicapped this year.

Enthusiastic uniformed school boys made up most of the spectators we passed, who for the most part were well behaved. It was the older lot of the male species that disappointed.

In a society where a mixed marathon is even a matter that can be debated, some degree of ill-will and teasing was to be expected. As Amme and I jogged on, a male on-looker said something uncouth about women (I was later informed – he said it in Punjabi and I missed his comment). A bespectacled, head-covered, middle-aged woman walking on her own turned around in fury and told the man to wipe the smile off of his face or she’d call the police. The man fell silent and his Cheshire cat grin disappeared. Such was the confidence in the police deployed to protect pedestrians! Is it too much to expect this kind of commitment from the government and police the other 364 days of the year?

Our party left the marathon out of breath and in high spirits. It was a job well organised and a pleasant experience to walk down Lahore’s Main Boulevard without being stifled by two-stroke rickshaw exhaust fumes and the glares of those surprised to see female presence on unwelcoming streets.

Now if a few thousand police were placed under strict government orders to maintain the peace in public places everyday – instead of so many guarding the fragile egos of VIPs – a time would come when the rogues who monopolise public spaces would become tolerant of women in the same space and there would be less need for the police. That time, however, seems to elude us since the government seems content with only teasing us with what should be an everyday reality.

Imaduddin Ahmed is Features Editor at The Friday Times


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