“Women on Wheels addresses a question of autonomy. It is much more than just wheels,” says Asma Jehangir, a prominent lawyer and founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “It’s about changing the mindset of people. It’s about voice, visibility, mobility…”
Jehangir was on the backseat of one of the 150 bikes that drove around Lahore on Sunday, January 10, as a part of the Women on Wheels (WoW) campaign launched by with the collaboration of the Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) on Law and Order and the City Traffic Police. Most of the bikers had been trained at the City Traffic Police Driving School in Thokar Niaz Baig. The training began on November 19, 2015 and is available to any woman interested in learning how to ride a motorbike.
Maheen Rashid, the media spokesperson from SMU, stated that the main aim of WoW is to ‘empower women’.
“Women have been dependent on men whenever they have to go somewhere,” Rashid says. “The visibility of women in the public sphere has been limited. SMU wants to enhance the independence and mobility of women.”
Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif has announced 1,000 ‘pink scooters’ for working women and students at a 50 percent subsidised rate under the project, which would be launched on International Women’s Day. The programme is focusing on women under the age of 40.
“We believe that increasing visibility will reduce harassment,” says Maheen Rashid
Rashid says SMU wants to encourage the next generation of women to be independent and join national development efforts, adding that WoW isn’t just focused on bringing about change at a superficial level. “We are focusing on providing the needed skills through the free bike-riding training,” she says.
She adds that another aim of WoW is to create awareness about street harassment. “Harassment is linked to the fact that people aren’t used to seeing women on bikes in the public sphere and we believe that increasing visibility will reduce harassment,” Rashid says.
Womens’ rights activist Nabiha Meher Sheikh warns against a ‘violent patriarchal backlash’. “A popular feminist theory suggests that as patriarchy and men’s space are challenged, violence against women increases,” she says. “That’s how patriarchy retaliates when laws are designed to protect women.”
Sheikh believes that parliamentary committee’s rejection of The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2014 on January 15 was also a reaction to the Punjab government’s initiatives for women. “It was PML-N’s Marvi Memon who had forwarded the proposal,” Sheikh says. “The rights that are being given to girls and women are threatening some.”
Sheikh further criticised the idea of a ‘pink’ scooters. “I think it’s very idiotic to earmark the color pink, because pink apparently says, ‘oh look: woman’. Whenever I take a pink rickshaw a lot of men keep trying to look in. The government actually had to start sending elite police squads to counter the harassment that women who take up their projects face. But then they realised that they needed a more long-term solution.”
Digital rights activist Nighat Dad says the Pink Rickshaw Project should have been expanded. “Women-run taxi services and female bus-drivers, with strong financial incentives for women who are trained well, could provide independent income in addition to enhancing womens’ empowerment.”
She also asks the safety question. “Pakistani women have been riding motorbikes, scooters, bicycles for years, and you can find photos from the 60s showing this. If you go to countries like Malaysia, or Turkey, they still do. But the problem here, as with other countries, is that women have often felt unsafe going out biking – whether we are talking about harassment by men, religious conservatism, condescending attitudes, or all of the above. Factor in the fact that traffic has tended to be badly controlled in Pakistan, and you’ve got a good number of reasons for women to be discouraged, especially if they’ve grown up here.”
Imaan Sheikh says the increasing Islamisation of Pakistan has a lot to do with the taboo on women biking
Buzzfeed writer Imaan Sheikh says the increasing Islamisation of Pakistan and lack of cultural reformation has a lot to do with the taboo on women biking. “The fact that women, even when perched on bikes as passengers, normally sit with both legs to one side (potentially dangerous) in itself is a sign that society would rather they risk their lives than sit in a safer way – parting their legs like a ‘shameless harlot’.”
Freelance journalist Afia Salam also questions the taboo. “Taboo is a flexible word. In some segments of society even the existence of women in a human form as opposed to a doormat is taboo, but in others, look at all the fields they have excelled in. Women on Wheels has started to stretch that elastic.”
Blogger Mahwash Ajaz, who recently wrote a piece titled ‘Women on Wheels – what’s not to like?’ also warns against the reaction to the Punjab government initiative. “As far as patriarchy goes, whenever there is a new innovation, men are quick to push women back in trying it out or using it as effectively as men.”
Fauzia Viqar, chairperson at the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, says backlash against such initiatives is natural. “Whenever there has been development on women’s rights, there has been a backlash,” she says. “But I don’t think there will be too much of a backlash either.”
Viqar says this is because that there are a lot of women riding bikes already. “I picked a random woman from the WoW rally, sat behind her and told her ‘be careful, because you’re new to this.’ She looked back and said ‘Ma’am I’ve been riding a bike since Grade 5’. I talked to another one and she said ‘I’ve been riding since forever’. So they’ve been there but we haven’t seen them really,” she says.
“Recently I’ve seen older women starting to ride bikes, more out of necessity than to make a statement,” she continues. “It’s too expensive to have your own car and the transportation system isn’t up to the mark. So, women need the freedom to travel themselves.”
“The police seem to be on board and I was encouraged by the statement of the CCPO,” she adds. “He assured everyone that the police are going to protect the women. If the message is coming from the highest level then there is less danger.”
“Whenever there has been progress on women’s rights, there has been a backlash”
Renowned female biker Zenith Irfan, who traveled solo through the Kashmir belt on a motorbike last year, says in order to analyse street harassment one needs to understand why it occurs in the first place. “Harassment exists because people are not open-minded about women riding motorcycles. South Asian culture, crafted with religious sensibilities, does not allow public to digest that women have their own transportation rights.” Irfan says she personally prefers to just ignore the antagonism. “All I do is ignore and shove away the catcalling.”
Even so, Irfan says there is a lot that the government can do to help the women out. “Improve traffic laws, promote women riders, provide free helmets for those who cannot afford them, impose bans and heavy fines on traffic violators. Maybe organise regular Sunday bike rallies for women.”
Imaan Sheikh says Women On Wheels is a good start. “Normalising things helps. The goal isn’t appreciation for riding a bike, the goal is societal indifference towards the sex of the person riding the bike. Exposing people to doses of bike-riding women will eventually normalize it. I hope it doesn’t remain a one-time thing, and women continue to take inspiration and ride around for work/errands/hanging out with a friend. I’m happy to have seen photos of a bunch of women bikers emerge on social media lately, even before WoW was held. It’s going to happen eventually. India’s done it, though we shared a similar regressive culture.”
Afia Salam believes economic compulsions could drive change. “How long it takes for women bikers to take to the street in significant numbers depends on the maturity of the other riders on the road. It will also happen when economic compulsions drive the women to use this means of transport. Economic benefits that accrue to the ‘objecting’ males are usually the main reason for women being granted their inherent rights to mobility.”
With the resistance and reaction in mind the Punjab government is working on an app to protect women from street harassment. “The app is still under development but it will be along similar lines as HarassMap,” says Fauzia Viqar. “If a woman logs on to the app and makes a distress call, one can figure out her location through DIS tagging. The police are going to locate her whereabouts immediately and I’ve been told that they’re going to be there in less than 5 minutes.”
Mahwash Ajaz says the app is not enough. “There need to be a proper follow-up for these complaints. The fines need to be kept track of. Multiple complaints from a particular area regarding a person should be flagged and given warnings. If a particular person exceeds their warnings, they should be fined or punished.”
Nabiha Meher Sheikh agrees that the app alone isn’t enough. “You need to create a mind-shift. Men need to start accepting that patriarchy does hurt them,” she says, adding that mere laws won’t suffice either. “No matter how many laws you make, unless people are convinced that they’re actually good for them, it’s futile.”
Researcher Marian Sharaph Joseph says self-defense education will also help. “Quality education is the solution, but for womens’ empowerment there’s a lot more that needs to be done. With more and more women becoming bread-earners, homeprenuers, working women, or even homemakers, they get to interact with strangers and with men. So, self-defense education should be introduced in high-school, intermediate and university level.”
“This should not just be a workshop or one training session. It should be a part of physical education class. I remember at Kinnaird we had Jiu-Jitsu Club but very few girls joined that,” she recalls. “Therefore, teachers and parents should encourage girls to join such clubs if they have any at their educational institutes.”
Joseph also asks middle-class women to stand up and be counted. “It’s always been women from the lower middle class or the elite who are seen taking bold steps to own that freedom they deserve. Young girls and women from the middle class shouldn’t hesitate. They should, in fact, be courageous enough to be a part of such a vital historic movement as WoW.”
WoW is already encouraging others to jump aboard. Satirist at Khabaristan Times Hana Wali says she wanted to be a part of the first rally but never got around to registering for it. “Then I saw the rally and I was floored. I am hoping to join in and learn how to ride a bike so that I can take to the roads too. I’ve wanted my own bike ever since I was two (my father had one) and I always enjoy bike rides but hate being on the backseat. You can count on me being a part of the next rally!”
What about the women who are still resisting the initiative?
“How many things will they resist?” asks Imaan Shekh. “If we had a rupee for everything we’re expected to resist because a bunch of old men have always told us to, we wouldn’t have to ride a bike at all. We’d all have enough money to buy a car and hire a driver. And if you’re a woman, please don’t discourage other women from riding a motorcycle. It’s up to us to dissociate everything ordinary that’s been unfairly linked with sharam (shame). Let’s stand up for each other.”
Zenith Irfan urges fellow women to listen to their ‘inner voice’. “Now is the time to do and not think. Embrace your passions and befriend your monsters. Make fear and death your friend and just ride.”
Asma Jehangir also expects to see more female bikers on the road. “Change comes slowly, but this is definitely one step forward. The government is planning to give a thousand bikes to women, which also then calls for better protection of their integrity. The government will have to look at it with more care.”
Maheen Rashid says the CM’s Special Monitoring Unit is not going to rest on its laurels. “Our job isn’t done just because we have launched the WoW rally. The aim is to take the initiative to its logical conclusion,” she says.
“Women from all walks of life are taking part in the training. We have doctors, lawyers, engineers, maids, housewives, students… it’s been very representative. We already have hundreds of applicants – 80 passed the driving test for the rally. For the training we are ensuring that women’s safety is given the first priority. They’re being trained with proper safety gear. Women who have been trained under our programme are already out on the road.”
Fauzia Viqar says there are other initiatives for women in the pipeline. “Some are visible, others are not so visible, but as important if not more. There’s the helpline for all women-related issues which my institution manages. There have been many initiatives to ensure inheritance rights for women, skills development opportunities.”
She adds that a few more initiatives are going to be announced in March. “We’re also launching a comprehensive database on women-related indicators: they give us the real picture of the status of women. It is going to be launched on the 7th of March and will be available to everyone and will highlight the extent of discrimination against women.”
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore