In Pakistan, Women Riding Bikes Fight Taboo: 'We Feel Free'

Dec 29, 2018
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Not many women ride bicycles in Pakistan. It's seen as vulgar, and it's especially rare in poor, more conservative areas. But every week, one community center arranges a ride through a slum in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. NPR's Diaa Hadid went along.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's Sunday in Lyari. The alleyways of this slum are crammed with vendors, motorbikes and men. A group of women nudge their bikes through the chaos. They wear helmets over headscarves and baggy clothes. But just the sight of women on bikes is startling.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: Some men stare; others turn their faces away. One samosa seller, Saqlain Usman, says this is un-Islamic.

SAQLAIN USMAN: (Through interpreter) Women should stay home. And if they have to venture out, they should be fully covered.

HADID: Another man says it's against Pakistani culture. It's taboo because a woman straddles a seat, and it suggests the shape of her body. But it's also about how women aren't really welcome in public spaces in Pakistan.

ZULEKHA DAWOOD: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Zulekha Dawood organizes these bike rides. She says women are empowered on bikes.

DAWOOD: (Through interpreter) We feel good. We feel free. We can go anywhere.

HADID: Anywhere but with a fight. Dawood began this group in February through a community center, the Lyari's Girl Cafe. She was inspired after seeing a group of boys riding, and the idea developed.

DAWOOD: (Through interpreter) We thought that if girls know how to ride, then they can move. They can go anywhere, like to college or the market.

HADID: But on their first group ride, Dawood says students from an Islamic seminary - a madrassa - attacked them.

DAWOOD: (Through interpreter) They surrounded some of the girls. They tried to crush them under their bicycles.

HADID: After that, Dawood took the women riding in a school enclosed by high walls so men couldn't see them, but they were still threatened. Eventually, Dawood figured out a riding route that avoids the madrassa. They're still harassed but not attacked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

HADID: On a recent day, they rode past roosters, past music blaring from vehicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: They reached a pedestrian street and joined other women waiting for a riding lesson.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Ayesha Abbas wobbled through a line of orange cones.

AYESHA ABBAS: (Foreign language spoken, laughter).

HADID: It's her first day, and she's a bit perplexed.

ABBAS: (Laughter) I am confused.

HADID: Naila Naz is another bike rider. She says riding is part of her fight for equal rights.

NAILA NAZ: To be able to go anywhere, to not need a man, to be able to be independent, we need to ride a bicycle.

HADID: Naz says her relatives probably don't approve of her bike riding, and she doesn't care. But not all the girls are so defiant. Urooj Bisma is 12, but already, she's worried about what people think.

UROOJ BISMA: (Through interpreter) When I think of what people will say, that haunts me.

HADID: Bisma says once she reaches puberty, which is marriageable age here, there'll be more pressure to stop riding. In the meantime, though, she loves setting an example for other girls.

UROOJ: (Through interpreter) When girls see us and are inspired, it really gives me immense pleasure. I want other girls to shed their fears and ride a bike.

HADID: And girls riding in public does seem to make a difference. Dawood, the ride organizer, says they began with seven or eight girls. Now, they've got 30, and she says they're carving out a new path for women one bike ride at a time. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.