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Can Karachi’s women-only pink buses drive change in Pakistan?

At precisely 1.40pm, the bright pink bus packed with women leaves the depot and snakes its way through Karachi’s traffic. Two female conductors walk the aisle collecting the 50-rupee fare. This is the first women-only bus service in Pakistan’s Sindh province.

Every 20 minutes during rush hour and every hour at quieter times, six pink air-conditioned buses run along one of the city’s busiest routes from Frere Hall to Clifton Bridge. “If this is successful, we can bring in more buses throughout the city, and eventually all of Sindh,” says Sharjeel Memon, the province’s transport minister.

Memon wants to make public transport safer and easier for women to use. “We have assessed that 50 per cent of the commuters during rush hour are women and there is not enough space in the bus for them to ride in a dignified manner.”

Launched on 1 February, the new service is Pakistan’s second attempt to introduce public transport that protects women from harassment. The first, run as a public-private partnership in Lahore in 2012, ended after two years when the government pulled funding.

For decades, buses in Pakistan have had women-only sections. But, says Arshia Malik, 32, who takes the bus to work as a nanny in the upmarket area of Clifton, the segregation didn’t stop men “touching your behind or rubbing your shoulder” while getting off the bus. “I would love to ride on the pink buses and ride without bracing myself for an untoward experience.”

Raakhi Matan, 35, a domestic worker, says woman have to be alert on public transport at all times. Touching and lewd remarks from men are common. On one occasion, Matan says she took off her slipper to hit a perpetrator, while everyone looked at her horrified. “I’ve stopped caring [what people think] and do not feel mortified anymore.”

Matan, who has a 15-minute commute, welcomes the new service. “I will feel much safer on an all-women bus.” Dr Hadia Majid, an associate professor at Lahore University, has been researching transportation and its links to women’s participation in the labour market. She sees the pink buses as a positive step in encouraging more women into the workplace.

Poor public transport, she says, has been a contributing factor in Pakistan’s dismally low proportion of women in the labour force. In 2021, women made up 20.6 per cent of the country’s workforce. Harassment was not the only obstacle.

Inadequate transport meant women often had to take more expensive taxis or rely on lifts from relatives. “This limits the times and the places that they can work because it ties them to male kin’s timings and place of work.”

It also makes it harder for women to look further afield to find work. “So, unless there is dire need, it’s easier and preferable for women to just sit at home,” Majid says. The pink buses are part of the city administration’s wider public transport improvement plans.

The Green Line bus rapid transit (BRT), connecting Karachi’s northern suburbs with the city centre, was launched in January last year, six years after construction began. More than 12 million people have so far used the BRT, and other routes are planned.

Arooj Abbasi, who works in hospitality, is excited at the prospect of women-only buses. “Our working hours start later in the day, from 3pm and up to midnight. Many young women who want to join this line of work are deterred by the timing as they know they will not get reliable transport home at night. But if these pink buses can provide that safety, many women will come out of their homes and work.”

Others point to the wider problems. University student Hiba Hasan Fasihi, 19, is sceptical about whether a pink bus can “resolve the way men look at women” but says she will use the service. “The pink buses can be used during rush hour when there can be a lot of pushing and shoving.”

Source: The News