By: RABIA MEHMOOD
A WEEK and a half ago, I went looking for the pink women’s buses said to be found at the bus terminal near the Islamabad Secretariat, finally spotting one lone minibus — looking like a pink blob in the distance — parked in a rather deserted terminal space.
That bus was waiting for another one coming from Rawalpindi to return so that it could get en route. Under the scheme, seven buses run on the Secretariat to Rawalpindi’s Saddar route, called route number 1, from 7am to 7pm.
I thought it best to catch the last bus in the evening from the stop nearest to the Marriott Hotel. The female conductor, wearing a clean white and pink uniform, eyeliner and hoop earrings, explained that they had been a little late because she and the (male) driver had to eat a quick late lunch. Friendly, professional and polite, both she and the driver were patient, even if the bus was a little too pink. It could seat about 20 people. On that particular ride, apart from myself, the driver and the conductor, there were 10 commuters.
The first passenger was a girl clad in a black abaya and a shawl, who had used the service earlier. A woman hopped on from the Islamabad College for Girls stop in F-6. “This is my first ride in this bus,” she told the conductor.
“I’m very pleased. You should wait for a few minutes here, many teachers would take it.” Having bought her ticket and receiving Rs3 in change out of the Rs30, she was appreciative: “The male conductors in the regular bus route never give change.” Over the next few stops three more women got in and conversation about the comfort of the facility commenced. Every passenger had unfortunate experiences to share on the “other bus”. They spotted a satchel with brochures of a cellular company hanging from one of the seats and began asking about services. The conductor was well-informed about the company’s new packages, but you cannot buy phone-credit on the bus.
When the bus reached Faizabad Interchange, the entrance into Rawalpindi from Islamabad, one young woman was talking to the college teacher. “Two days ago a bus driver charged me double the fare at Faizabad,” she complained. “He refused to take me further unless I paid him another Rs30.”
This declaration started another round of anecdotes, a common one being the rejection of female commuters by male conductors and drivers. “The worst is when they will not allow women in, despite the availability of seats,” explained a student. The college teacher confirmed: “They insult us and dare us to file complaints against them.”
In an ideal world, public transport would be gender-friendly, run with accountability, would run on time and female commuters would not need protection. In the real world, however, the governments are still struggling to achieve secure mobility for women.
The relief provided by gender-specific transportation has been introduced in cities in Japan, India, Brazil, Guatemala, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and Mexico. Pakistan attempted an experiment with women-only public transport in 2012, when three buses (also coloured pink) were introduced, but two were withdrawn due to the lack of female commuters.
But the Punjab government has not given up on the idea for Lahore entirely. Two more buses are to be introduced in Lahore. The chief of the Lahore Transport Company (LTC), Khawaja Haider Latif, told me that more women-only vans would only be added after a survey to estimate the need was conducted.
So far, Pakistan has not explored thoroughly the capacity of gender-specific public transport to sustain itself financially, curb harassment and navigate during rush hour.
To address concerns of female commuters, it would be a step in the right direction if the authorities tried to count the number of women using public transport in the country.
A commuter from the bus I took to Rawalpindi, Mrs Naseem, told me her daughter used to take a bus to go to her college at the Murree Road terminal. “It was humiliating and frustrating for us when the bus would not come on time or not come at all,” she said.
“Nobody ever thinks of the ghareeb (the poor). I wish this bus had been running when my daughter was a student.”