As I drove to office today, I saw two girls, one in jeans — that universal symbol of modernity in Pakistan — the other in shalwar qameez, walking leisurely down a Mall Road intersection, in the middle of a scorching Ramzan afternoon. Though I was only able to catch a fleeting glimpse of them as I drove past, their squared shoulders and casual gait caught my attention.
Two young women without any obvious attempt to disappear behind yarns of cloth or a hesitant body language, unaccompanied by a man and unapologetic of their existence, is still a rare phenomenon, especially on roads associated with professional business rather than shopping or eating. Mobility for women is perceived as a utilitarian ideal. Logic around mobility usually goes thus: ‘Women need better public transport, so they can participate in the economic growth of their country,’ or ‘Women need safe spaces so they can earn when their families need it.’ In other words, women need a reason to be out and about, and ideally there should be a man to help them in the fulfillment of this reason.
When it comes to visible violence against women — bruises, burns, ‘honour’ killings — there is general consensus over the criminality of these acts and the need to enact and implement laws that discourage such behaviour. But the real challenge is the changing of social attitudes and norms towards violence that is not visibly perceivable. The violence of not being able to call your time and body your own, the violence of not being able to walk, speak, and laugh openly. These are violences that cannot be legislated, only understood by a society that perceives women as fully realised individuals. Individuals who can stand on street corners and talk politics, loiter in parks without a purpose, walk down a street with no destination in mind, make new chance connections with individuals across classes, sit on a motorbike without having to sacrifice safety in the name of womanly decorum.
Of late, this idea of women on bikes has garnered quite a bit of media attention. Motorbikes are in the limelight ever since the tale of a young woman Zenith Irfan went viral online, inspiring the creation of a Pakistani feature film called Motorcycle Girl. Complementing this has been a push by the Punjab government to provide motorbikes to women below a certain income level (total house income below Rs30,000, to be precise). This initiative, called ‘Women on Wheels’ (or WoW), has been functional for the last couple of years. According to Salman Sufi, the head of the Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit, the newly created department responsible for the initiative, has so far provided more than 400 women with pink motorbikes. In this phase, a total number of 700 bikes are to be delivered as they arrive from the Honda plant. Four hundred sounds like a big number but these bikes have been distributed in five different districts of the province: Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, Sargodha, and Pindi.
Unfortunately, these motorbikes aren’t numerous enough yet for the average commuter to notice any visible change in the gender makeup of our streets. But it is a start. I am curious what will become of the WoW initiative now that we are in a pre-election phase and the next government might not be the same as the last. A female officer at SRU tells me that their unit has been given an extension of one year but nobody knows what its fate will be beyond that time period. “Initiatives like Women on Wheels and the Violence Against Women Center in Multan have been set up in the wake of the Punjab Women’s Protection Act of 2016. According to that, all women-related initiatives will ultimately fall under the ambit of an authority called the Women’s Protection Authority. Once that is established the changing of political governments will not impact the pro-women work that is currently being carried out,” she says.
In tandem with the pink motorbikes initiative, the government also set up training schools to teach women how to ride a bike before they were handed over their subsidised vehicles and allowed to go out in to the streets. One of these training centres is located at the Rescue 1122 headquarters in Lahore.
On a hot May morning I visited the training school to get a more clear understanding of this new wave of female mobility in Pakistan. The centre is located on Ferozepur Road where 12 girls have arrived at 11am to attend their first day of motorbike training. Aroosa, a warden of the Punjab Traffic Police, is their trainer, and today she is giving them an introductory lecture on riding a motorbike.
The girls look enthusiastic and ask eager questions whenever they fall behind. Aroosa is no-nonsense and competent, lending the exercise an air of strict professionalism. “If I see any of you without a helmet, I will immediately send you home!” she shouts. The girls acquiesce meekly.
This stress on safety is important for young girls about to experience their first taste of vehicular freedom. Many of the girls being trained that day belong to the Punjab Police, and I get talking to a few. Farwa, who is just 24 years old, joined the police a couple of years ago. She has done her Masters but was hired at a position whose qualifications require only an intermediate certificate (FA or FSc). But the desire for a stable, government position is so great that most girls selected to these positions don’t mind being overqualified.
In my zeal to share my knowledge on feminist theory I tell Farwa I find the choice of pink for these bikes a bit reductionist, perpetuating age-old gender ideas. Her answer leaves me floundering, “It is actually great that these bikes are pink. This way there are less chances that our brothers will take these bikes away from us.”
Farwa tells me she needs to pay a total of Rs52,000 for the bike to be hers. She had to pay a down payment of Rs27,000 (a steep amount for an individual belonging to a house with a collective monthly income of less than Rs30,000), and from there onwards Rs1,800 would be cut from her salary at source till the full amount is deducted.
Raheela, a girl who has already received her bike from WoW and is using it daily feels it has revolutionised her life: “Every day I go to the school [where she teaches] on my bike. I also run errands and help my family. It has changed things a great deal for me.”
How about people’s reactions, I ask. “Most people try to help out, some give me thumb-up sign as they pass by, or give me big smiles. My experience has largely been positive, though there are of course some who stare or pass unsavoury remarks, but those aren’t as frequent as the ones who give me a positive response.”
In a country where around 130,000 bikes are sold every month, 400 motorbikes driven by women are unlikely to create a social revolution, but all revolutions begin somewhere small, and for now this seems like a step in the right direction.