For women, taking back the wheel has always been a herculean task. In neighbouring India for instance a recent International Labor Organization (ILO) report outlines that despite the economy growing significantly, the female labor force participation has fallen by seven percentage points, to 24 percent from 31 percent. India has failed to integrate women in the labor force and one of the major reasons by analysts: piety. In Pakistan the situation is much more dire. Pakistan’s female economic activity rate lags behind at 15.8 percent (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2014). It is almost as if for Pakistan women were filed in the non-asset category. When it comes to piety as a factor to keep women out of the economic pie, the notion goes something like this – the most pious woman is the least seen one – public space is a no-no. As if she was a relic stored away in the basement.
Public transport as an extension is an even greater stretch. As families struggle to keep afloat financially and are forced to educate and get women to work, there is a seeming clash between necessity and the false notion. The result: women are stripped of their dignity going from place A to B. In Pakistan seeing a woman on a Vespa scooter as one often does in the cities in India, is an anomaly. A fact that any right-thinking Pakistan should shudder to think of – as opposed to say the number of nuclear weapons we have less or more of than India. Ultimately the survival game is linked to the country that first determines it can active women to tap into the workforce. However, you have to first fix the problem of getting women to the workplace.
A woman behind a wheel, symbolically and literally speaking, puts herself securely behind the ability to save herself. With domestic violence high up in the 90% range, there is a lot of saving needed and it is unlikely to come from the perpetrators. More empowerment is linked to less subservient conditions in the household. The subversive culture is all present: if they are not coerced to doing backbreaking chores, they are bruised; if they are not deprived of an education, they are restricted to being part of any community uplift programs; if they are not segregated, they are humiliated in terms of their sexuality though heightened notions of honour. The very reason women are kept out of public view by men is to protect them from patriarchy that men like them help perpetrate. The irony is unmistakable. The solution is to alter men’s schemas, but that is work that is generational, we have to make change happen for the women.
A local women’s transportation solution, SheKab, published some data in an informal survey of travellers between the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi and revealed that about 90% of their respondents travelled from Rawalpindi to Islamabad and about 50% of all women travellers used public transportation; 15% use taxis while only 30% had access to their own vehicles. For half of the women who use public transportation, it may feel like they are stepping into a bin under a public hospital bed. Even with more modern transportation networks like the metro in place, the harassment women face is still an unsolved part of the problem – almost all have been groped, rubbed against, gotten stare downs, subjected to sexual innuendos and overall manhandling during rush hours. For a society built on piety there is very little respect for women to go around.
Who’s to say that without harassment there would be an X fold increase in the use of public transportation. There have been efforts to create women-friendly transportation solutions like the pink taxi, pink rikshaws etc but they haven’t been able to scale as solutions. Also those solutions that segregate as part of the scheme possibly play into the notion that those that can’t use these options are fair game when they come into physical contact with men finally – drivers, conductors, guys generally hanging out in the women’s sections, fellow passengers who spill over. Ask any woman to outline her public transportation experience and it invariably involves having to take off a slipper and toss it at a face blowing kisses or a hand that is unconstrained. We don’t have to walk over coals to travel to work, we should be able to do it with some semblance of dignity.
What would be more dignified than a national call to this transportation emergency, starting small at first with Rawalpindi and Islamabad? A philanthropic organization that relies on innovation, The Pakistan Innovation Foundation has launched a Women’s Transportation Hackathon. This is heartening if not truly commendable for recognizing the catastrophe. The ideas competition opened on the Independence day that just passed and is multi-pronged, calling for submissions in four areas: communications and behavioural change; use of innovative technologies; new business models for sustainable transport for women and design of new forms of transport attuned to the needs of women.
Pakistanis who feel a place to contribute must submit their ideas. Industry players like Toyota and development organizations like the UN Women are supporting and mentoring the participants. We need more women to #TakeBackTheWheel under this campaign so women can find a path to economic empowerment without needing to end up in a foetal position.
Want to see a change, be the change and send your ideas. Who knows, Pakistan could build an Uber-like solution for a piety-linked problem.