Generations of women have been made to feel subhuman whenever they have ventured into the public sphere. The society that we live in repeatedly attempts to have men dominate all outdoor activities. The ‘good woman’ does not set foot on the street. From an early age this idea is drummed into her mind and she is kept in fear of her own mobility and independence. It’s a big, bad world out there, she is told. If you are a good woman, you won’t tempt fate. Society trusts you to know better.
But are the times truly changing? Can we expect the claustrophobic definition of womanhood in the Pakistani context — one that assumes that differences in anatomy mark out different roles, boundaries and destinies for both genders to undergo a change?
The optimism is not entirely unwarranted. Women on Wheels (WoW), the initiative aimed at ending street violence and harassment against women and allowing them to reclaim public spaces seems to be doing justice to its acronym.
The first all-women bike rally, held recently, created waves as foreign and local media flocked to cover the one-of-its-kind event in Lahore.
Earlier, the motorcyclists were being given free training lessons starting November 19, 2015 as part of the programme which was launched in collaboration with the Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) on Law and Order, the City Traffic Police and UN Women HeForShe.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I saw the female motorcyclists on TV. They seem happy and confident. I would like to learn, too,” says Saima Javed, a housemaid who often has to walk long distances to get to work. “I mean I have to ask my husband for the smallest of things — beg and plead most of the time if I need to go somewhere far from home. If I had a bike like he does, it would be a lot easier.
“I want my daughter to learn how to ride a bike as well,” she adds. “It is sad that in our society, at least where I come from, men will see this as a threat to the power and influence that they have in the house. If our lives are easier too, then wouldn’t it make for a more stress-free environment at home? Isn’t that good for everyone?” she asks.
“It can happen in a big city like Lahore — I don’t know so much about the rest of Pakistan,” interjects her friend Tahira, who accompanies her to work sometimes. “But that can be good; maybe, it will become a trend. The road is just as unsafe for pedestrians as it is for motorcyclists. Even if you are walking on the road, you are just as likely to get hit. I don’t think that this should matter much. Although I think domesticated women will not be able to benefit from the campaign. Their men won’t let them.”
The pool of applicants is quite diverse, according to Salman Sufi who is positive about the prospects of the programme. That women from different walks of life have applied — from professionals, housemaids and students to homemakers — is an encouraging fact, with respect to the reach and the utility of the programme.
The preferred mode of transport for women is cars and rickshaws and ideally accompanied by a male chaperone. Anything less than that is considered to be something out of the ordinary — risky and irresponsible.
Women make up a significant chunk of the population and contribute in more ways than one to the development of the country yet they are held back by tradition and a warped interpretation of morality and propriety to go out and reclaim the roads of their country. Riding a bike, driving a car, walking the streets and moving about un-chaperoned is ideally not something that should strike the imagination as eccentric actions. If the environment puts them at the risk for harassment and harm, it is the environment that is toxic and needs to be changed.
Confining them and disallowing them to move about in the public sphere for their own ‘good’ is not just tying their fate to an argument that is built on cyclical logic but also a statement on the society’s perception of its men.
“India probably has had one of the worst rape statistics in the world but you still see women on bikes on the roads,” asserts an undergraduate university student. “It is a routine matter that they are participating so visibly in public life. We are even similar with respect to victim blaming but look at how far ahead they are.
“I mentioned the idea [of WoW] to my brother. He had a smirk on his face and slowly said to me, “Yeh Pakistan hai!”
She sees the programme as a step in the right direction — one that sets the foundation for woman empowerment and emancipation. She hopes more men will extend support for the development of an egalitarian society.
Fatima Tassadiq, a graduate student with a background in anthropology, believes there is a need for the idea to be normalized: “If a woman can walk on the street then there’s no reason she should not be on a bike.
“Normalising the idea of women cycling like they once did in Pakistan is really important.”
“There are already female bikers around the city. My friend bikes all the way from Cantt to Lawrence with her male and female friends from the neighbourhood. She’s been doing this since before that rally on Sunday,” adds Siraat Sheikh, a law student at LUMS.
Talking about Women on Wheels, she says, “It is an excellent, much needed initiative. Men need to accept women as self-reliant persons who have as much a right to travel by themselves as men do.”
“More women on the streets makes it safer to have more women on the streets,” she argues.
What comes as additional good news is that there will soon be a mobile application that will help women reach out for help in case they are being harassed by alerting the closest traffic warden who is expected to be there in less than 5 minutes. While it is yet to be seen whether these promises will translate into reality, there is a need to engage in constructive criticism in order to optimise it and it should not be written off.
It is likely to be met with a lot of opposition by ‘traditionalists’ but if the outcome is even slightly closer to what was conceived, then this marks a significant turning point and can even push the government to address other issues related to women’s rights to serve as a testament of its sincerity and seriousness to empowering the gender.
For now the government should put on its thinking cap — the success of the project lies in ensuring that the 1000 scooters that will be distributed among women as a part of this campaign will be used by the women themselves and not the men in their families.