Women on Wheels

Everyone, irrespective of gender, has the right to go about their work without let or hindrance. Women in India, and even some Muslim countries, can be seen riding a motorcycle or even bicycles but until recently, this was not the case in Pakistan.

While women driving cars in urban areas is a common sight, the majority are dependent on male family members for mobility. Similarly, those using public transport spend substantial time and money on traveling, which includes trouble finding rides at odd hours and also face harassment in various forms. However, for the past five years, women have broken the patriarchal barrier and chosen to ride a bike — long considered a man’s domain.

The Women on Wheels (WoW) initiative was launched by the Punjab government in 2016 under the patronage of Salman Sufi, a social activist.

After the change of government in 2018, the Salman Sufi Foundation took over WoW as an independent initiative and to-date has trained over 10,000 women across Pakistan and aims to train 500,000 women more in the next five years.

Talking to Sabaat, Sufi said “Initially it was very difficult to convince families to allow their daughters to learn [how to ride a motorcycle], but then a high number of girls started taking lessons and everyone realised its financial benefits. Resultantly, women have started their own businesses which has changed their lives.”

‘Women are not safe drivers’ is a sexist, stereotypical expression often uttered by men. This shatters women’s self-confidence and makes it very hard for some to take the first step. “In our safety training component, women are given confidence that they can ride a bike and take control of things,” explained Sufi.

A WoW drive Karachi in March this year. Photo: courtesy Zeeshan Parwez/Twitter

“We want women to remain dependent on us. But we don’t realise what will happen when we are not there. When I got my daughter a motorcycle our neighbours asked me to ‘control my daughter’ rather than giving her freedom, saying she should not wear vulgar clothes or sit on a bike in an unbecoming way,” shared Ishaq Mian, a single parent of five from Dharampura, Lahore.

However, Mian wondered that if women can drive animal carts and cars why not a motorcycle? “I encouraged my daughter to learn how to ride a bike and today we have divided the burden of chores so she does the pick-and-drop of her siblings from school, goes to college and does the groceries. I feel a bike is much safer than public transport.”

Pink Riders — run by Payyam-e-Khurram in Karachi —trains women and transgender persons from Karachi to Gilgit-Baltistan to ride bikes, thus empowering them to get a job and meet their expenses.

Pink Riders’ student Shireen Ferozepurwalla, an engineer from NED University and double MBA from CBM, said using Careem for commuting would cost her almost Rs30,000 monthly so she took training and started riding a bike. She regretted that the mindset of society is the real hurdle for women.

“Boys will see a girl riding and make sure to pass a comment or nudge each other. There are many who come extremely close to scaring a woman rider,” she said, adding that there are also good people out there as she’s been helped many times by passersby when her motorcycle breaks down.

When she applied for a motorcycle driving licence, the official at the counter refused to accept Shireen’s application saying they do not issue these licences to women and she should drive a car instead! However, once she raised the issue with police higher-ups, the matter was resolved and she got her licence.

Even though ventures such as these have changed many lives, women are still not completely safe being on their own on the road.

Recently, Samar Khan, a renowned mountain-biker, was harassed while riding in Islamabad. Warda Noor, a law student at LUMS who also runs a youth team named Future Pakistan, said, “I’ve been giving tuitions for a long time and the bike has been the major reason I have been able to continue. I was upset the way people stared at me and treated me on the roads, but after a while I started completely ignoring those around me and now I am managing fine.”

November 20, 2020

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