By: Anadil Iftekhar
In urban areas women travelling in buses, coaches and rickshaws is a common sight. Our faulty transport system allows very little room for these women to travel comfortably. This week You! takes a look at some of the most common issues that female commuters have to face…
Times have changed and now an ever-increasing number of women seek employment. Even women from low-income neighbourhoods or shanty towns desire to work. This zeal may come from desperate need of money or career development. Whatever the case, the underlying fact is that women need to step out of their homes in order to make a better living. However, their determination is hampered by many elements, one of which is the ramshackle public transport. Since a majority of our population is poor, owning a car is out of question. While men resort to bicycles and bikes, women are left at the mercy of buses, wagons, coaches, rickshaws and Qing Qis.
Being on the road is no easy feat for women. Whether they are walking, travelling or driving, they have to bear the brunt of harassment. Due to lack of transport facilities a majority of college and university girls have let go off internship opportunities. Same is the case with many female graduates who threw away work opportunities with decent salaries for the same reason. You! highlights some of the most common issues that female commuters have to face on a daily basis.
One of the major problems faced by women commuters is rampant sexual harassment. Almost every girl, never mind the dress code, has been a victim of this crime. In buses, the seat by the metal railing partition in women’s section is the devil’s spot. Many women prefer standing even if the seat is empty. The reason is simple. Men are able to permeate their fingers through the segregating bar and poke women. At times women retaliate but many just ignore it to avoid fights.
The second most irritating spot in the ladies’ section is the seat located right above the engine. It is extremely hot to sit on and when sitting on it, the women have to face the men’s section. Xara is a young girl in Karachi who uses public transport a lot. “Whenever, I sat on the engine seat, I ended up straining my neck because I had to keep my gaze out of the door to avoid an eye to eye interaction with the men,” she says.
Even though, the men’s section of a bus is quite bigger than the women’s section, we find them occupying the women’s compartment as well. The rash driving makes passengers bump into each other. Men sneer when such a situation takes place, making women extremely uncomfortable.
If these manly shenanigans are not enough inside the bus, they happen on the bus stops too. Dania used to board a bus from Shaheed-e Millat road in Karachi when she studied in college. “Cars and motorcycles would stop in front of me and the drivers, often educated and well-groomed would look at me and gesture me to sit in the car,” she shares.
Rickshaws are not very conducive either. Shahana, a librarian at a school in North Nazimabad, recalls the various mirrors in the front of two-stroke rickshaws. “It seems as if the driver is checking out every part of our bodies,” she says. The most harrowing part is paying the fare. Be it the rickshaw driver, bus driver or conductor, they often end up touching the female passengers’ hands while taking or giving back the money.
It is a misnomer that only men get looted or mugged out on the roads. Women also face such situations. Sanjeeda, 36, is a school maid, who commutes by public bus daily from Korangi to North Nazimabad. The distance she covers everyday is long so is her list of miseries. She has been deprived of her belongings many times. “Sometimes it’s the armed thugs, other times it’s the veiled-women who quietly slip their hands in my bag and take out the money,” she reveals.
Male thugs no longer have the courtesy to treat female passengers with respect. Often they snatch belongings or hit the women.
Waste of time and health concerns
Traffic is a huge mess. But public transport especially buses take longer because the vehicle stops at many places. Rickshaws and Qing Qis also move at snail’s pace owing to their structure. All this is a great source of mental and physical exhaustion for women, who have to return home and take care of household chores too. Many have to cook, clean and look after their children’s needs. Since the women are tired, they get frustrated or annoyed at the slightest invoking. Shahana recently gave birth to a boy. Throughout her pregnancy she had to commute to her school on a rickshaw and recalls the pain she felt in different parts of her body after a rickshaw ride. Pre-pregnancy, Qing Qi was her mode of transport. After reaching home she would get so exhausted that she wouldn’t cook food and resort to instant noodles – very unhealthy for a pregnant woman – as a result she became haemoglobin deficient and the doctor advised her to consume healthy foods but due to the lack of stamina, she was unable to cook anything nutritious for herself.
According to Zaib, a maid in Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, “In the past six months, I have sprained my ankle twice while climbing down from a bus. It is because the bus doesn’t stop for long and we have to get off as quickly as we can.” Also, the pollution levels are high in major urban spaces of Pakistan. Passengers have to inhale smoke and dust due to which they suffer from various health issues like headaches on a daily basis.
A dent on monthly budget
While public transport is the poor man’s ride, it still drains the monthly budget. Shahana earns 25,000 rupees per month but she ends up spending up to 3600-4000 on the rickshaw rides. Money is one of the main reasons why she is working; however, paying such a huge amount leaves her sour. Saima, a resident of Kharadar and a freelance graphic designer had to leave the advertising agency she worked for because of regular late arrivals. Despite leaving her house early in the morning, she got late because of crowded buses and traffic jams. Her salary used to be deducted but the worst part was the humiliation that she had to face by her bosses at the office.
Also many female passengers get into arguments over fare especially on days when CNG is not available – the bus fare goes up by 5 rupees while the rickshaw drivers double their fares. Sometimes, the bus owners and conductors refuse to give back the change. And at times the conductors don’t show up in the ladies compartment – especially if someone has given a 100 rupee note – because they are well aware of the fact that the women will not go to the men’s section to look for the conductor and ask for their remaining amount.
A practical solution:
And then we have cases where a woman is humiliated if she decides to take some measures to avoid the public transports. A few weeks back a woman was seen riding a motorcycle in the area of North Nazimabad, Karachi. She was in a shalwar kameez wearing a helmet that revealed her face. Soon enough cheap men on bikes started encircling her. They laughed at her and heaped comments. The poor girl got nervous but she ignored those hooligans.
The question that arises is that, why do people have to apply sanctions on women who dare to be different? In our neighbouring India, which is culturally very similar to us, women ride motorcycles. Although India has a very high rate of sexual harassment but still women at least have the facility of travelling comfortably on their own bikes. This is the most practical solution for Pakistani cities. While Lahore has a metro-system, for other cities there is a bleak future for public transport in the foreseeable future. Thus women should be encouraged to make the scooters their mode of transport. The eminent architect Arif Hasan presented the female perspective in the report Motorbike Mass Transit (2011) that out of 68 women he interviewed, 36 were ready to adopt the motorbike, 20 felt that they wouldn’t be granted permission and 5 felt it was against religious doctrine and 11 said it wasn’t suitable for women. The sample frame was from a lower income area. According to the study, average cost of maintaining a motorbike for a month was 784 Rupees. In 3 years it must have increased due to inflation but still it is cheaper than using the public transport.
What can be done?
Various factions are at blame. The government should be blamed for the lack of civic amenities which includes decent public transport. But it is also the societal attitude. Why do men get so excited at the mere sight of women? In developed countries, buses are mixed. Men and women sit next to each other quite comfortably. Perhaps the enforced segregation of sexes makes men more desperate and frustrated.
*All the names have been changed to retain privacy.