The crowd stands in the sweltering heat among the shouts of the street vendors, the Bollywood music from the local store and the smoke from the burning trash, but then, comes an interesting sight in the city of Karachi: a girl riding on a motorbike with the ease of a rider who has been doing it for years.
Women in Pakistan are in many ways crippled by the lack of agency they have when it comes to travelling. Travelling on public transport often opens them up to harassment, and travelling by foot has led to an alarming number of incidents that have scarred these women for life.
Due to all the concerns that arise for these women, they are often left depending on their male family members to take them places. Often, they have to cancel plans, make arrangements and miss out on important opportunities because they have no way of reaching the destination themselves. While many brave women take the step forward to start driving cars themselves, they face backlash from the people around them and society. They are called names by other male drivers, harassed at traffic lights and on many occasions, followed until they reach their destinations.
In such an unsafe climate, it is unthinkable that women in Pakistan would make the bold decision to start riding bikes. Riding bikes is considered to be even more dangerous than driving a car because you are completely exposed and much more vulnerable to danger than you would be in a covered vehicle. However, there are a number of women bikers who have mustered courage to break the stereotype.
For some of these girls, like Marina Syed, riding a bike was a dream come true. “When I would see women riding bikes in movies, I always wondered why not here? Why is it that whenever someone drives a car or a bike wrongly, it’s assumed that it must be a woman?” elucidates Marina. She confessed that she was terrified each time she sat on her bike, worried she would get hit by every car passing her by but she forced herself to do it every single day until one night, she went all the way to her workplace. Although she gained a lot of bruises and injuries along the way, it was all worth it because of where she is now. “Whatever I learned, I learned from falling over and over again,” expresses Marina. She has now formed a group of female riders who support and encourage one another amid opposition from their families and society.
For Zenith Irfan, the first female motorcyclist to travel across Pakistan on her own; it was her father who was the motivation behind riding the bike. Zenith’s father had the dream of making his way through Pakistan on his motorbike; however, he tragically passed away at the young age of 34. To honour him, she decided that she would do what he was unable to. “I did this for my father and I still do it for him. For me, going and riding across Pakistan is a spiritual endeavour,” shares Zenith.
The world got to see her story through a biopic made by Adnan Sarwar named ‘Motorcycle Girl’ which was released in 2018. Zenith made the tumultuous journey of 3,000 kilometres from Lahore through North Pakistan until she went all the way up to Khunjerab Pass, which is along the border of China. “I am blessed to come from a family that placed no restrictions on me, and it was my brother who taught me how to ride. I had no fears when I started around eight years ago, even though there wasn’t a culture of riding,” tells Zenith.
Zenith pulled off what is only a dream for many women and men in this country and by doing so, she opened up a world of possibilities for so many young minds that could not even decipher such a journey. In Zenith’s opinion, the opposition against girls riding bikes is primarily due to the fact that there is no precedent for it and it is a shock to people’s systems to see girls taking control this way. “The main thing that kept me going was the fact that I have to do this for the young girls who have that spark in their eyes,” comments Zenith.
Despite the hurdles thrown their way, there are some unexpected benefits of riding a bike in Pakistan. For some bikers like Ifra Mehmood, it allowed her to see a side of her own society that she was not able to witness before, a sense of camaraderie that women are often left out of.
“My male friends from university who have similar routes as mine are very supportive. They leave at the same time as I do and I feel like I am being escorted. Also, surprisingly enough, people in general really like to give their two cents. Random strangers would help get my bike out of tricky parking, help with starting my bike when it fails me, and even give advice when I seem to be having a hard time on tough roads,” narrates Ifra.
It appears that society in general has decided to open up its doors to the women taking these brave steps forward. For example, one of Pakistan’s most popular ride-hailing services, Careem, has announced that they will be starting a completely new ride service which will only include female bike riders. The rise of female bikers in Pakistan not only strives to create a more safe space for the riders but also opens up a safer medium for those who are passengers. Initiatives like the one taken by Careem and the Pink Bus make it easier for women - not to depend on others to go out and about with their lives.
“For most women like me, learning to ride a bike arose out of necessity. I opted to ride a bike as it became difficult for me to stand under the sun waiting for the bus and then tolerating inappropriate behaviour of the drivers, etc. When I came home, I used to be so exhausted, but now I am happy that I took the right decision,” says Areesha, another bicyclist.
All these women want people to accept women bikers as part of normal commuting, as in the rest of the world. “I do hope you give women a chance to be a functional part of the society,” wishes Ifra. Zenith, on the other hand, wonders what it is about women riding bikes that is so threatening to society as a whole. “Who are we harming by doing this?” she questions.
For women who are scared of starting their journey of bike riding themselves, their suggestion is straightforward: “Just do it,” advises Zenith. “It’s overthinking that causes us the most harm. So, just go for it,” she emphasises.
“Learn to ride a bicycle first, it’s very helpful. For your first ride on the streets, the fastest way to learn is to tail someone. Just follow them wherever they go. It’s preferable if that person is someone you know since I learned through following my sister’s car. But I think having someone ride their bike with you is even better,” suggests Ifra.
“You will hear some rude comments, some unsolicited advice or even some inappropriate remarks. You should learn to ignore them as soon as possible. Whenever it feels like someone is trying to talk to me, I either speed up or slow down. If it’s really important, they’ll match your speed and if they’re just looking for fun, they’ll lose interest when you slow down,” she adds.
Despite the harassment and the hurdles and the harsh words, these women will not stop living their lives as they race through the tumultuous streets of Pakistan. They hope to set an example for all the young girls in this country to take charge of their life and stop depending on others to take them to different destinations.