Cathy is flushed with happiness. She has just driven her brand-new rickshaw from her house to work. “It’s the first time I drove without an instructor,” she says in excitement.
“I can’t describe the rush that I felt.” Her whole family came out to see her off.
Two shiny rickshaws, painted pink and off-white, stand proudly in a corner of St Joseph’s church and school, where Cathy is working on a project with schoolchildren. Designed much the same as the other rickshaws on the road, these pink ones are enclosed on all four sides, including the driver’s seat. But they aren’t claustrophobic; there are windows, while a fan in front of the driver’s seat can be useful, too. A lock secures the door, and in the back, three people can sit comfortably.
“These rickshaws have been designed so well,” says Cathy. “The side-view mirrors are much larger than in an ordinary rickshaw, the seating is spacious, and most of all, it’s a safe ride.”
The idea was that of Zar Aslam, who feels quite positive about it. Though she faced a few hurdles, and was deflated in the very beginning when it came to financing the rickshaws, a friend of hers changed that (each rickshaw costs $3,300).
“My friend — an Indian residing in the US — saw how downcast I was and offered to buy a rickshaw,” says Zar. “She raised my spirits so high with that one rickshaw that I started an online campaign that is working quite well now.”
Although the scheme has been introduced publicly, this is only the beginning. “Why wait till we have a certain number of rickshaws ready to drive?” she asks. “I just wanted to start right away. In the meantime, more rickshaws can come.”
At present, there are only three female rickshaw drivers. Along with Zar and Cathy, there is Sarah.
“My parents really supported me with this,” says Sarah. “In the beginning, there were many questions. I was asked if I could do this without quitting, because the work is different and challenging. But on the other hand, I was never discouraged.”
The colour of the rickshaws has created a small debate. Pink, associated with femininity, is ridiculed for stereotyping women. But Zar does not see it that way.
“It’s just a colour,” she shrugs. “It cannot be denied that many women relate to pink, and whether this is an ingrained preference or not the fact remains it is real. We tend to linger on these academic issues, and not look at the idea as a whole. Have detractors considered that, pink or not, these rickshaws will end up giving women a whole new position of power by making them owners? Which other form of public transport has female drivers?”
She says that once the women own their rickshaws, they can paint them whichever colour they like. “We have not created gender segregation. This is an incorrect understanding of my scheme,” Zar insists. “I believe in empowering diversity. We will give these women training on driving, safety, and other technical information. In the beginning they will be understandably reluctant to pick up unknown male passengers. They can give rides to male colleagues or family members. The rickshaws will also start off on very fixed routes such as to and from schools or hospitals.”
If all this were not thought out, she says, the scheme could fizzle out, much like the pink buses or the other ‘packages’ for women that are launched from time to time.
While she talks, two men approach. “I want to get one for my wife,” says one of them. “She has a beauty treatment business and we may profit by picking up and dropping off customers. Rather than a car, I encouraged her to think of this.”
Many men may think along the same lines, but some of them end up taking over what the woman owns. A GPS tracking system and cameras inside the rickshaws will keep this in check, says Cathy. “We need to know our routes, and so does the head office,” she grins. “They will check whether we are driving, or our male relatives.”
But a little nervousness does creep in sometimes, she admits. “While I was driving today, I noticed many men staring at me,” she explains. “One of them was curious about the rickshaw and asked me how much did it cost. But others made me a little uneasy too. You need to have a lot of blind confidence to counter such people, because men do not want you to get out and be mobile and independent.”
Sarah has a more straightforward attitude: “If you are determined to do something you cannot worry about what others feel about you. You must go ahead and do it.”
Meanwhile, donations are flooding in from across the globe and most of the donors are women.
“We would rather have this plan work than have it mentioned on an important date in the year, like International Women’s Day,” says Zar.
“We will eventually do follow-ups asking women their experiences, especially socially and culturally, so that we can form a better understanding. There may be challenges, but there’s nothing that cannot be solved.”
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2015