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A polarising issue

Gauging the success — or otherwise — of the Pink Bus

A polarising issue

If the dizzying humid air of a late September day, the suffocating smoke emitting from rickshaws and motorcycles, and the deafening sound of the traffic at a busy chowk near Green Town weren’t enough to frustrate me, the nasty stares, lewd comments, and obscene gestures thrown in my direction by men moving around exhausted me altogether.

My fists clenched, teeth set tight, I waited for the public transport bus which arrived ten minutes later. To my pleasant surprise, it was a ‘pink bus’ (as they call it).

The bus door collapsed, and I was greeted by a female conductor. The mental agony I had just experienced was gone in a few seconds.

For the uninitiated, the pink buses are women-only buses, which presently ply on three different routes in Lahore at a fixed schedule — B1, B33, B12; one bus dedicated to one route. The bus on the B-1 route completes 3.5 trips in a day, the one on B-12 completes 3 round trips, and the bus on B-33 completes 2 round trips in a day. The bus service ends by 3pm.

Women-only transportation might have appealed to a very small population in our society; it’s only for a short-run. The core problem remains unaddressed — teaching the men to respect and not be invasive to the ‘weaker sex.’

For all the criticism that it has generated from circles of women who saw it as segregating the society and aggravating the problem (of eve-teasing) further, I must say that the bus service has allowed many women to travel, punctually, comfortably, and without fear of being harassed — at least for the length of their journey.

But the whole fantasy of being a safe and secure transportation for women lot faded soon as a male ticket-checker appeared from nowhere. His inappropriate gaze and dirty half-smile was enough to shake me out of my near-relieved mind. What’s more, he had the audacity to ask me about my whereabouts. Perhaps, because I was the only girl in the front section of the bus at that time.

Women-only transportation might have appealed to a very small population in our society; it’s only for a short-run. The core problem remains unaddressed — teaching the men to respect and not be invasive to the ‘weaker sex.’

Even though the pink buses have been up and running for five years now, many women who travel on the said routes don’t even know the service exists. The reason may be that it has not been advertised widely, and that the buses run only on three specified routes for a few hours each day, and that they operate along the routes where regular buses with separate sections for men and women exist already.

Being a heavily subsidised service, the pink bus isn’t a sustainable idea and cannot have a significant impact on improving women’s mobility in the city, if it continues to incur heavy financial losses to the government.

In May 2016, a survey was conducted among 81 Pink Bus passengers and 6 female conductors by the Center of Economic Research in Pakistan, to find out about their experiences and ideas to improve the project. It was found that the bus is primarily used by students and working women — chiefly teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, police staff, office workers and domestic workers. Many women said that they usually planned their travel around the pink bus timings and stayed in touch with the conductors to locate the bus at their respective bus stations along the routes, primarily because it’s more comfortable, the seats are always available, and female collectors are helpful.

Mahnoor Nasir, a public transport user, highlights the other side of the coin. She says, “The more we create a taboo around the topic of harassment and attach a colour, word, or code language to validate women’s existence in public, the more we offer men to isolate women through their behaviour because they never question the existing norms or why is it that the women are kept in protected spaces.

“It’s the social behaviour of men towards women that needs to be challenged. Gender segregation or gendered buses will ultimately fail to bring the sense of safety that women seek when they leave home to go to their schools or work.”

Another woman I met on the Pink Bus raised the same issue that segregating women in public transport places the responsibility on women to avoid being abused rather than stopping men from doing it in the first place. Also, it does nothing to prevent harassment outside the bus, rather capitalise on the issue, liberating the men from the sensibility and sensitivity of respecting their counter-gender.

Experts believe that women-only transport is an extremely polarising issue. On the one hand, it can increase comfort and bring more women into the workplace and public space in general, but on the other hand, it can move women away from mixed-gender transport and venues into segregated spaces. However, there is no systematic evidence on this to date, and this is something that needs to be studied further.

Fizza Sajjad, who worked as an urban planner in Lahore and has done extensive research in women’s mobility and transport says that if women-only transport can introduce new travel modes and allow women to leave their homes, travel safely and comfortably, then there’s no harm in it — at least in the short run. Of course, that’s not to say that women-only transport is the only solution to improving women’s mobility and access to public spaces.

Public transport that exists in peri-urban areas is usually extremely overcrowded by men so women prefer to not travel on these vehicles. Public transport with segregated compartments would be helpful. But it is found that women-only transport isn’t likely to work very well in peri-urban areas as women do not travel frequently, and when they do, they prefer to travel with their families. So, there’s no one solution to the problem. “It’s generally a good idea to first asses what women’s preferences/needs are,” Sajjad says.

Women-only buses have been introduced in many other countries before Pakistan, but it hasn’t always been evaluated. Naznin Shahrokni, a PhD student, who has researched this matter in Tehran, Iran, says she found that women-only buses did, in fact, increase women’s mobility and allow them to enter the public sphere in greater numbers.

Urban planners and researchers think that the design of pink buses can be improved in a way that they would cover evening times as well, to allow more women to rely on the service. In order to reduce the cost, the government could run these buses for women in peak hours (morning, afternoon, evening) by displaying a large ‘women-only’ sign on the buses, and operate the same vehicles for men and women for the rest of the day.

As Sajjad concludes, “For the long run, we need to introduce several other initiatives such as street-lighting, better footpaths, safety audits, trainings on sexual harassment, campaigns to encourage women to report harassment, and follow that up with action, develop transport policies that pay attention to men and women’s transport behaviour, and run transport on a fixed schedule.”

Maria Arshad

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