The first thing Sadaffe Abid did when she heard Wednesday’s massive bomb rattling the windows in her office four miles away was, like most residents of Lahore, to telephone to check on family and friends. However, what she did next was more surprising.

“I told them we should come out on to the streets to protest against these militants,” she said. “This bomb was meant to turn public opinion against the army operation to clear the Taliban from Swat, and we shouldn’t give in.”

The stylishly dressed Abid, 35, is chief executive of a foundation providing microfinance for rural women, and says until recently she never thought the Taliban were anything to do with her.

Yet twice in the past two months she and many of her friends have gathered for rallies in the Mall in central Lahore, holding placards declaring “No to terrorism”, after spreading the word through Facebook and text messages.

Outraged by a video showing the Taliban flogging a young girl in Swat, in North West Frontier Province, they were shocked to see part of the country ceded to extremists. When, even in cosmopolitan Lahore, warnings were sent to colleges for girls to cover their heads and not to wear jeans, they began a letter-writing campaign to tell the government and army chief not to give in to militants.

Among the letter-writers was Abid’s brother Farhan Rao, who left his job at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel last year only weeks before it was bombed and now runs his own business. “None of us ever got involved in politics before, but we feel the whole future of our country is at stake,” he said.

After years of turning a collective blind eye to the Taliban, while intelligence agencies groomed militants to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, Pakistanis seem determined to take on the extremists. Almost the entire nation has rallied behind a military operation that has seen more than 2m people flee the mountainous region of Swat.

A series of bomb attacks last week seemed to strengthen public resolve. On Thursday, when the Taliban commander Hak-imullah Mehsud warned that residents should evacuate the cities of Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Multan or face further attacks, most stayed put.

Some kept children home from school, shops stayed closed and public places and hotels were largely deserted, but the mood was one of defiance. “It’s our war,” said one of the country’s biggest textile manufacturers. “We’re the ones who have to live here.”

Inspired by the lawyers’ movement, which had the country’s chief justice restored last March after an unprecedented two-year campaign, citizens’ groups in Peshawar are planning a march against terrorism. “We can no longer just stand by,” said Maryam Bibi, one of the organisers, who runs a women’s group in Waziristan, near the troubled Afghan border.

Such moves may be small but represent a shift of attitude in a country which has often blamed its problems on outsiders, usually Indians, rather than recognise its own failings.

“It’s a huge change,” said Pakistan’s leading human rights activist, Asma Jahangir. “For a long time it felt like we were the only ones raising voices against these militants while the rest of country remained silent and we were labelled anti-Pakistan. I just hope it’s not too late.”

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