There is very little difference between Pakistani women and women who are crippled. Going by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a “cripple” 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 surely create mobility disabilities for women.
In Pakistan, women in the non-urban cities are not present in public spaces. You don’t ever see women. You see men. You’ll see an animal on the streets before you see women. Urban planning designed these public spaces on the assumption that no woman would tread there, so that is the first problem. Other issues are stigma. Women are designed for the indoor. If they go out, say to do groceries, take kids to school or even earn an extra buck, then who exactly will do the domestic work? So domestic work is the prisoner’s iron 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 of women if they don’t work to remove constrained access for women. 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, photo-oping and declaring small victory over the stigmatization of a woman in public space on a heavy machine. Not withstanding our air force’s F16 women pilots, women in public parks even are not allowed to use heavy machinery. There was a sign saying women cannot ride the 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 make a minority among Pakistani women who need permission to even pop a birth control pill or a painkiller. Women have no agency in so many aspects of their own lives and bodies that venturing out physically in a patriarchal world full of harassment is too much to claim.
Some people think this is an exaggeration. Take a look at the comments section on the Facebook posts of the news of this event. Men have come forth saying all sorts of part laughable part cringe-worthy 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 one is that women will not know which side of the road to ride on.
Women have responded to those online 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 only help if these steps are non-reversible. Next elections have a conservative party in power and the women will have even fewer escapes from misogyny. To vote these options out, women need feet before they need wheels. Uncripple women from moral policing first.
Until the culture of Pakistan enforces clear power equality among the sexes, women will be on the mercy of men’s kindness. A few here and there, may even take their bike to work and thumbs up on the way but aesthetics don’t establish lasting turnaround in society and legal structures. It isn’t about a women’s bike rally, these women on wheels initiative ethos are to carry forward towards 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 it is affected by religious and 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 they are constitutionally required to access but can’t because of the crippling – education; health; finance and advisory to key lifelines especially when they are in a hostile environment or subject to domestic violence. Any woman, who can move, at her own accord preferably, is less deprived than one who can’t.
A woman on wheels has a great impact on the overarching aim of women empowerment. They can run from harassment faster than they can on foot. The government can give women motorbikes, great, please also give them safe places to go to as well. Or they’ll ride from one hell to another. Even helmets won’t help.