#GirlsonBikes – Cycling against the Patriarchy

I was going to write about this sooner, but on the day of the event in question, our beautiful Lahore was hit by a bomb blast. In the aftermath of shock and horror, it took me time to be able to gather up my wits and write about this.

I’ve always dreamed of a revolution in Pakistan. As a child in England I was an avid cyclist – but the streets here were way too hostile for girls on two wheels. So I dreamed of a motorbike revolution – women flooding the streets on two wheels, normalising the sight – after which women in Pakistan would be as free to use bikes, motorbikes, scooters and scootees  as their counterparts in India currently do. Every time the tv showed an indian ad or program with a savvy twenty-something nipping down the road on her bike, I would smash my fist against my hand and vow, SOME DAY.

And it seems that my dream has finally come true. Some months back the government of punjab held a Women on Wheels rally in Lahore, where around 150 women were given motorbikes along with basic safety training, and then they paraded on the streets with many prominent women’s rights activists. Seeing that mass of orange trundling along truly made my heart sing. Finally, I thought. It’s happening.

Around the same time, I learnt about the wonderful and courageous Pakistani motorcyclist Zenith Irfan, who at the age of just 21 travels on her motorbike to all sorts of remote corners of the country.

All of a sudden, there were examples everywhere. Cycling, for instance, is becoming more common. In the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, it is a common sight to see women riding bikes across campus. In Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, more and more women are joining Critical Mass, a group of cycle-riding enthusiasts who welcome female participation.

But there’s always a backlash in a stiflingly patriarchal space like Pakistan. I was sad but not surprised when I read this post about a woman being needlessly harassed about sitting astride a bike. More shocking, however, was this. Aneeqa Ali was riding her bike to a Critical Mass Lahore early morning ride when was harassed by men in a car. When she paid no attention, they hit her bike with their car, causing her to fall, and drove off.

Such harassment is depressingly common. But this time, women in both Lahore and Karachi decided they’d had enough. Girls At Dhabas, an organisation aimed at reclaiming public space for women, set up a bike rally in support of Aneeqa in both cities. #Girlsonbikes occurred on 28th March and it was a success.

I knew I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t participate, so yours truly attended as well!

The participants of the ride itself, exclusively women, cycled along and back a predetermined route, carrying placards, and afterwards there was a discussion on bike riding. It was covered quite extensively in the media and GAD intends to have similar rides in future as well.

Incidents like Aneeqa’s, and Pakistan’s general culture of harassment, are calculated to produce fear and anger, and limit women from public participation.  Progress depends on countering and ignoring those messages by going out anyway. Participating in an event like this, I felt really encouraged, optimistic and hopeful. Plus it was exciting meeting the women of Girls at Dhabas, and being among feminists who felt as strongly as I did on these issues.

The excitement and positivity was marred by the later events that occurred the same day – but I carry a glow inside me nonetheless. Change seems not only possible, but inevitable, at least in this respect.

The revolution I dreamed of is finally here. 🙂

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