THE right to commute is one of the basic rights of a citizen. Transportation forms the backbone of any urban landscape, as a large portion of the populace in a city relies on public transport to commute to its workplace and back due to the cost-effectiveness and the cross-connectivity it offers.
In Karachi’s case, minibuses have always been a very important part of the transport system, and nowadays Qingqis are also rapidly gaining popularity. With the ever-expanding city landscape and rising fuel prices, public transport becomes the only travelling option for the working class and the economically disadvantaged.
Women constitute 52 per cent of the population and a major part of the workforce. Besides work, an increasing number of students also travel by bus to their campuses. Yet they don’t get an equal share of space and resources.
Despite gender-segregated spaces, women often have to literally fight for their space in public transport. Even the seemingly educated male lot finds it perfectly alright to hog the seats and space reserved for their female counterparts. Even Qingqis — the poor man’s chariot — are no exception. Men are usually found to be occupying the back seats of Qingqis as well.
Buses provide the ‘safety in numbers’ factor to female commuters, yet many times they end up facing harassment and rude behaviour in buses as well. Women endure ogling, leering, ‘accidental’ bumps and pokes, and have to stand up for themselves and for one another in situations like these. Waiting for the bus quite often proves to be the most dangerous part of the journey.
Nevertheless, travelling by public transport ends up equipping young female commuters with invaluable life skills, such as fighting for their space, dealing with unwanted attention, not to mention learning to balance themselves and their belongings in a crowded and speedy vehicle, while fishing for change in their purses.
Another situation that women commuters in Karachi have been facing quite often is the scarcity of transport that results from frequent calls for strike. Transport becomes slim or non-existent after any kind of turbulence and the commuters are left in the lurch.
In 2007, when the assassination of Benazir Bhutto plunged the whole country into a state of complete anarchy, thousands of commuters were stranded on the roads in Karachi. Just like their male counterparts, female commuters had to walk for hours in the cold weather to reach a safe place, if not their homes. Unlike their male counterparts, societal norms prevent women from finding alternative solutions in such situations, such as taking a lift from strangers.
The lack of an affordable, safe and comfortable transportation system ultimately limits women’s access to work and education. It contributes towards absenteeism from work and education. There is a vital link between the transportation factor and people’s choice of careers, specifically that of women.
Time and again there have been promises for a mass transit system in Karachi, including proposals for separate buses for the female populace. Yet these plans are yet to materialise in a sustainable manner. A well-planned transportation system and perhaps a separate and sustainable transport system for women is the need of the hour.
Women are not just nameless, faceless, passive recipients of the transport service; they are vital consumers, having their own unique needs and rights. And the right to travel with ease, freedom, peace, and dignity is most vital for women.—Ambreen Ishrat