Women deserve wheels — and safe places to go
There is very little difference between Pakistani women and women who are crippled. A philosopher once articulated that cripples can’t move because they can’t, but “an able-bodied person who doesn’t move” will also remain “exactly where they are.” Just like the person with a disability, social practices and material infrastructures only create mobility problems for women.
In Pakistan, women in rural cities are not present in public spaces. You don’t ever see women. You see men. Urban planning designed these public spaces on the assumption that no woman would ever tread there, so that is the first problem. Another issue is social stigma. Women are designed for the indoors — if they go out, say to do groceries, take the kids to school or even earn an extra buck, then who exactly will do the domestic work? So domestic work is the prisoner’s ball chained to a woman. This is particularly true in non-agricultural terrains. When women do go out, it is only to do chores men have rejected, but want done nonetheless, like fetching water from miles away in the heat.
This access I speak of is a gendered phenomenon. There is no way policy-makers can bring about an empowered state for women if they don’t work to remove constrained access, especially now that the elections are upon us.
The Punjab government has parked itself behind the Women on Wheels movement. In mid-May, it handed over 700 motorcycle keys to women in Lahore and, in celebratory zeal, got them to ride in the city, posing for photos and declaring a small victory over the stigmatization of women in public spaces. Notwithstanding our air force’s female F-16 pilots, women in public parks are not even allowed to use heavy machinery. There was a sign saying women cannot ride bikes at an Islamabad racing track I went to last year.
Let us not forget that this is indeed a small victory, nothing more. These 700 women are a minority among Pakistani women. Women have so little agency in so many aspects of their own lives and bodies that physically venturing out into a patriarchal world full of harassment is often too much to countenance.
Some people think this is an exaggeration. Take a look at the comments section on Facebook posts sharing the news of the Women on Wheels event. Men have come forth saying all sorts of part-laughable, part-cringeworthy things about women on motorbikes: Women shouldn’t ride bikes because they will cause accidents; because they are men’s honor; because women are respect-worthy and should not be eye candy for perverted men; because they need to be protected from the patriarchy (that men perpetuate in the first place); and, my favorite, that women will not know which side of the road to ride on.
Until the culture of Pakistan enforces clear equality among the sexes, women will be at the mercy of men’s kindness.
Women have responded to such comments by saying that they indeed know what side of the road they should ride on, and also that they can ride a bike without ramming into a tree. What they should do instead is create a revolution — persuasion won’t help. Asking for small mercies or taking baby steps will only help if these steps are non-reversible. After the elections, if we have a conservative party in power, women will have even fewer escapes from misogyny. To vote these options out, women need feet before they need wheels. Women need saving from moral policing.
Until the culture of Pakistan enforces clear equality among the sexes, women will be at the mercy of men’s kindness. A few here and there may take their bike to work and get a thumbs-up on the way, but aesthetics won’t establish a lasting turnaround in society and our legal structures. It isn't about a women’s bike rally, this Women on Wheels ethos needs to be carried forward toward women’s daily mobility. The element of physical access to different facilities is not a function of transport provision, but a set of complex hierarchies.
Mobility is a multi-faceted phenomenon and is affected by cultural norms; women’s input in governance; their presence in the formal sector; in financial micro-credit schemes; disaster and conflict rehabilitation; and, most importantly, access to technology. With the internet, for instance, women can access those critical services they are constitutionally required to access but can’t, especially when they are in a hostile environment or subject to domestic violence. Any woman who can move on her own is less deprived than one who can’t.
Giving a woman wheels has a great impact on the overarching aim of female empowerment — and they can get away from harassment faster than they can on foot. The government can give women motorbikes, great, but please also give them safe places to go to. Otherwise they will ride from one one bad place to another. Even helmets won’t help.
• Aisha Sarwari is co-founder of the Women’s Advancement Hub, a grassroots platform for women to amplify their voices. She has been working on women’s rights in Pakistan for more than 15 years. Twitter: @AishaFSarwari