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Women start learning to wheel themselves towards success

Eighteen-year-old Iqra Shamshad, first-year premedical student and resident of North Karachi’s Sector 7-D, is not dependent on her brother and father for her daily commute. She zips through the congested streets of Karachi on her motorbike every day to get to her college and coaching centre.

Iqra’s father is a banker and very much proud of his daughter driving a motorbike. Not only is she an inspiration for her teachers and class fellows but she has also taught many of her friends to drive a motorbike.

Initially, however, residents of her locality tried to discourage her from driving a two-wheeler, but as time passed, she became an inspiration for everyone.

“When I decided to drive a motorbike, my parents appreciated me,” she said confidently. “They gave me the confidence and taught me how to shun negative looks directed towards me.”

She trounces all the hooting, catcalls and unwanted gazes with confidence. “If we get overwhelmed by such gestures, we will lose,” she said with a grin.

WOW kicks off

On Sunday morning, clad in a red kurti, a pair of blue jeans and a blue headscarf, Iqra drove her brother on her motorbike all the way to the Frere Hall, where the Women on Wheels (WOW) programme was arranged by the Salman Sufi Foundation in collaboration with the Sindh government and supported by the UN Women and the UNDP.

The Salman Sufi Foundation has pledged to train 10,000 women throughout the province to drive a motorbike. The campaign is aimed at empowering women in the city by training them to drive motorbikes, providing them access to an anti-harassment application and helping them challenge patriarchal norms through a widespread communication campaign.

By Monday (today), formal training will officially commence on a vacant ground at the University of Karachi near the varsity’s business school and will be expanded across the city in different areas.

At the event, Sindh Women Development Minister Shehla Raza sat astride a motorbike driven by a woman, just like the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir had done in Lahore to shun patriarchal pressures of how women must sit side-saddle on a motorbike, even at the cost of their safety.

A large number of women from every class, either clad in an orange dress or having something of the colour in it, thronged the event and displayed how their tremendous potential can be unleashed if their mobility is not looked down upon.

The theme behind the orange colour, according to the programme’s founder Salman Sufi, is to convey the message to the international community that Pakistan supports the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’ campaign that is commemorated globally from November 25 to December 10.

“We want the world to know that we are not only empowering our daughters but also training them against gender-based violence.”

A real man

Sakeena recalled that when she took her son for the first time to his school on a motorbike, how embarrassed her son was. “Mamma everyone is looking at us,” her son had said to her. After that she promised herself to raise a son who turns into a real Mard (man).

“I never want my son’s wife or daughter to think that their independence is being subjugated because of my son,” she said, adding that she always wants to cultivate respect for women in her sons, as “charity begins at home”.

“I am his first trainer. What a mother can do, no other woman of the world can!” she boomed, and was appreciated by the people at the event with a round of applause.

Now she picks up and drops off her son to his school daily and he faces no embarrassment in that. “He sometimes asks me to drive fast,” she laughed, and said that she had started driving a motorbike four years ago.

She pointed out that as much as a man riding a motorbike deserves respect, so does a woman doing the same. Her husband was critical of the idea of her driving a motorbike, but one day he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital by Sakeena on a motorbike.

“I drove him to the hospital on a motorbike,” she said, adding that even after he got discharged from the hospital, he raised no objection to her driving a motorbike and chose to ride pillion.

Food delivery

Rubab is the first food delivery woman in Pakistan. She delivers food to every nook and cranny of the city on her motorbike and is very much proud of her work. It has been two years since she started driving a two-wheeler.

“My father taught me how to drive a motorbike,” she told The News. She recalled that once, while delivering an order, a man had told her she must stay at home and cook. “I retorted that he was no one to decide if I should stay at home or go outside.”

She asked girls to come out of their homes and live their dreams. “There’s no need to be dependent on your families for your commute.”

Free licences

The Sindh chief minister’s adviser Barrister Murtaza Wahab said the provincial government will encourage women to sit at the steering wheel. He announced issuing free licences to all the women after their training and opening facilitation centres at all the driving licence centres, where women can easily get their licences.

As for the availability of motorbikes for women, he made the assurance that the Sindh government will play its role in making two-wheelers available for women on easy instalments. “We want them to be independent and encourage their mobility.”

He added that when Sufi had tried to win him over for the programme a few days ago, he said to him that he did not need to be convinced, and recalled the very powerful image of Asma on a motorbike raising a victory sign and smiling. “The happiness on her face that day, I can see the same on the faces of the women here.”

Shehla said she got herself registered for the programme, which will be extended to Hyderabad, Sukkur and Nawabshah. “The women development department will allocate funds for this programme when motorbikes will be delivered to different women across the province.”

She also said the drive will continue district-wise, adding that they will go to different colleges of the city and conduct sessions there for motorbike training.

A revolution

Sufi told The News that WOW will not only train women but also help them get jobs as well as loans so that they can buy their own motorbikes. “This is not only a programme but a revolution in which we will ensure that every woman in the country gets the same facilitation that the men do.”

As for the chances of women being harassed while driving motorbikes, he said they are developing an application through which women will be able to report such cases. Their programme also provides anti-harassment training to women to teach them how to deal with harassers. After covering Sindh by the spring of 2020, he said, they will make their way to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. “We want to take this programme nationally at every level.”

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