It takes 34-years-old Afshan Babar some 90 minutes to reach from her home in Surjani Town to the training centre run by TAF Foundation (TAFF) where she is enrolled in the Cooking and Housekeeping course at TAFF-VTI. There was a time when she could not have imagined stepping out of the house alone.
Now, the ability to reach from point A to point B has changed her life. “Watching others use public transport is what encouraged and motivated me,” says Babar. She has now joined the millions of Pakistani women, particularly in urban Pakistan, who are daring to be mobile on their own.
The credit for this acceleration in the number of women daring to go where no woman from their family had gone before goes, according to experts, to access to information technology and cellular mobile phones.
For Amber Zulfiqar, a Food and Travel Influencer & Digital PR Consultant, services like smart phone taxi services have eased up travelling for women. “Women are taking inspiration from other women — it grows like a chain. When a woman lets go of her fears of travelling alone, it is because she has heard stories of her friends using it or read encouraging material online.”
Most gender experts like Mahnaz Rahman, Director, Sindh chapter of the Aurat Foundation, agree that cellular phone access is a blessing for Pakistani women. “Technology has shown women a path that is a means to an end. Sitting at home, many women have become entrepreneurs with the help of social media,” says Rahman, adding that as ours is a patriarchal society, men have better access to information technology as more men than women have cellular phones, especially smart phones.
“Nonetheless, access to information technology has helped women get exposure to the world and step outside their cocoons, not just physically but also intellectually,” she says.
“The first step for women is to step out of their homes. Exposure helps them evolve and grow. This mobility is not just travelling from point A to point B — it is also about joining the workforce,” says Sibtain Naqvi, Head of Public Affairs at Careem.
Naqvi echoes the opinion that mobility is a serious challenge in Pakistan. “A mega city like Karachi is without a serving metro system. And the challenge is bigger for women. Even privileged women are dependent on males of the family to go out; women from the middle class who are educated are expected to sit at home simply because getting to work poses a challenge. The vans that women use to get to office and go back home do not provide personal mobility,” he adds.
A woman’s needs are beyond just getting to work or dropping and picking her children, and the urban woman has a lot on her plate owing to fast-paced lifestyles of both spouses. Taxis are prohibitively expensive, often not maintained, with rash drivers and security issues; rickshaws pose their own sets of problems.
Once urban women of Pakistan got access to cellular technology, smart phone taxi services began to fill the gap. “We are happy to share that 70 per cent of Careem’s customers who ride are females — females from all areas and all economic strata. What apps have done is that they have empowered women to make their own choices — something they do not get to exercise beyond the kitchen,” he says.
The impact of women’s access to technology is not just limited to riding with the help of such apps, but goes beyond. For Quratulain Tejani, for example, being a digital strategist and entrepreneur would not have been possible without access to a smart phone. “A few apps and tools have changed my life completely. Google Maps have made mobility so much easier and convenient. I can go from one corner of the city to another, knowing that I can find my routes easily. Even when I’m driving around and get lost, all I need is 3G and Google Maps to help me find my way,” she says, adding that Google Drive and WhatsApp have facilitated her in her professional life.
For the 200 plus female captains in Careem and for the female entrepreneurs behind the thousands of home-based small entrepreneurships that rely on social media for their marketing, cellular technology is providing opportunities of work.
These impacts are not limited to just upper tiers of society. In TAFF, one of the projects includes training and placement of women from underserved backgrounds in the Domestic Help industry.
“I’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation in students who graduate from our programme. Women who had never stepped out of their houses are now riding buses around the town to reach their workplaces on time. These are women who overcame their fears, including that of travelling on public transport to earn living incomes for their families.
“Most of them are also now part of WhatsApp groups created by TAFF-VTI to stay in touch with both students and alumni which is a testimony that technology is not only being introduced to but utilised as well by our students and graduates,” says Hammad Mateen, Programme Head at TAFF-VTI.
The mobility, then, is more than just physical. Naqvi observes that generally, technology is associated with the male gender, especially in South Asia; while girls are encouraged to join Fine Arts and Humanities, boys are encouraged to work in the field of IT. But smartphones may have broken this technological barrier for women.
“We are seeing an interplay between women and technology. Even my mother has now moved to a smart phone so that she no longer has to wait for me to take her somewhere — she can just call a smart phone taxi service. This is true both for generations of technology immigrants as well as technology natives like the youth. This change is not just of physical mobility. It is sociologic as well as demographic,” he says.
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However, experts like Uzma Quresh, Social Development Specialist with the World Bank Group warn against the vulnerabilities that women are exposed to due to being active on social media and using information technology. She cites examples of cyber harassment and also mentions cases of honour killings where a girl was killed because of having access to a phone or the internet.
“Virtual mobility gives women job opportunities. E-commerce portals and IT-related skills are profitable avenues for women and also give them exposure,” she says, but adds that society has to work not just on facilitating physical mobility of women but also ensure that virtual mobility does not lead to irreversible repercussions and safety threats for women.
“It is not enough to give women access to information technology and social media; we have to work on changing mindsets,” she says. The need, then, is that the collective social thought-process moves from being restrictive to being enabling for women. That, perhaps, will be real mobility for the women of Pakistan.