• 14 Mar - 20 Mar, 2020
  • Eman Saleem
  • Feature

She swung her bag over her shoulder, grabbed the helmet, and ran down the stairs, mindlessly fumbling with the keys in her hand. She stands there facing her ride, swings her leg on the other side and slides into ignition. One day, mobility will be as easy as this for women in Pakistan We’d like to dream, at least.

As a Pakistani woman, you have to make one hard compromise in claiming your space in the streets in whatever mode of trans-port you choose. Take your pick between being at high risk of sexual harassment, higher rates, threat to personal space or inaccessibility to certain areas. The burden is borne by half the country’s talent pool, forgoing financial opportunities or access to quality education. In an online survey conducted in Lahore in 2018, it was deduced that women spent 20 to 40 per cent of their income on commute, whereas men only spent 10 per cent. Will the situation improve if motorcycles were normalised for women to avail cheaper mode of transport? Women on Wheels (WoW) an initiative by the Sufi Foundation trained between 150 to 500 women, and ride-hailing service Careem is in the works of launching an initiative of an all-female bike fleet, will this help challenge mobility issues that affect women or better yet, create opportunities? We talk to young women, trained and ready to partner with ride-hailing services, taking control of problems bred in male-dominated streets… Three women, three different stories.

Ramsha Butt: “I’m not wrong, why should I be scared?”

“Every time a challenge presents itself, pehle dil main khayal ata hai kaisay hoga? Lekin phir dil kehta hai tum karlogi,” says 22 year old Ramsha Butt with an ear to ear smile. Her spirit is bigger than her person, fear must cower under her courage. Enrolled in a Bachelors programme, she tells me she wants to help her mother, the breadwinner of her family, with educational expenses but more so, she wishes to dismantle patriarchy so the next generation of women will not inherit her problems. “You shouldn’t let circumstances frighten you, never feel weak. Yes, it’s true that in our society we have to seek permission from our families, but I urge those parents and brothers to support us. If they won’t support us today, nobody will ever support us.” Teacher during the day, a student and a single mother, she learnt how to ride a bike with WoW; the road is a source of confidence for her, an opportunity to override her fears, empowering her to be independent and taking control of her life. I ask her if she’s ever thought about what if she’s ever harassed, has she considered carrying something for self-defense? “Mera haath he kaafi hai,” we share a laugh. She was given training on how to deal with any fateful incidents, but she says she doesn’t need it. “Traveling in buses, hum waisay he train hojate hain kay ek bande kay saath kaisay deal karna hai,” we smile at each other, a woman to woman smile, decrypting to how it doesn’t have to be this way but, sadly, it is how it is. Her extended family will not support her, they will be livid, but why should she fear, she asks? “I’m not wrong, why should I be scared?” On the bike, she feels exhilarated, “us waqt main khud ko mazboot samajh rahi hoti hoon, main kisi ki mohtaaj nahi hoon.”

Navera Younus: “I will feel more empowered when more women will join me”

It’s seldom discussed at forums but students are increasingly asking for a solution for their financial independence, when will we normalise and create part-time opportunities for them? Near unheard of, Navera Younus is setting a precedence for the need of the hour; this will be the 18 year olds’ first job, “bike chalana tou mera passion tha aur is se ammi abbu ki madad bhi ho jayegi.” Her father was her first trainer, teaching her how to ride a bike in Karachi University grounds before she got formal training. The BBA student will be her family’s first woman to take up this challenge, and family and society are lauding her efforts.

Not only is her family and society encouraging, she tells me when she’s on the road, people often salute, a gesture that is a source of confidence for her. But the roads are still dominated by men, the sight of female bikers are a refreshing and much-needed change we agree, but does that ever bother her? “I don’t feel very comfortable in eastern wear just yet, lekin jab ye aur common hoga, I will feel more empowered when more women will join me on the streets.”

Shaheen Gul: “Self-confidence is your best self-defense”

In walks Shaheen, in an ajrak bandanna, self-assured. 23-year-old Shaheen Gul is a single mother to a five year old girl, who she aims to raise in a world where women have unshackled themselves. Hailing from a village in interior Sindh, Gul is a dreamer and a rider, her longest ride has been to Nooriabad, 94 km from Karachi. Gul aims to be a motorvlogger and a stunt rider, and I certainly feel she has the unwavering determination to realise her dreams. The biggest concern for women in taking the two-wheeler is whether it is safe for them in a patriarchal structure? She tells me her friends often caution her to avoid riding late at night; ‘larkay chayrengay’ they say, “main kehti hoon larkay bhi tou late night ride kar rahay hotay hain, un ko tou hum larkiyan nahi chayerti,” she laughs. I ask her how she deals with eve-teasing, “pehli baat ye kay ghabrana nahi hai, be confident, aap se bike nahi sambhali jayegi.” She explains that incidents happen, just like they do in buses, but at least no man is physically violating my personal space. “Self-confidence is your best self defense,” she adds but that being said, Gul is prudent and plans on learning martial arts and eventually purchasing a licensed firearm because she thinks there is a difference between being brave and reckless. Women in Pakistan have long dealt with immobility with no fix in sight, but should we cave under this threat? We have to leave the safety of our homes and face the world for education or career, Gul expresses how liberating it is to have your own wheels instead of being vulnerable in public transport. “Nobody is going understand us if we don’t understand who we are. Women have to decide who they are and stand for it, the world is not at liberty to tell us who we are.” •