Public transport: Letting Pakistani women take back the wheel

Published August 31, 2015
There have been efforts to create women-friendly transportation solutions, but they haven’t been able to scale as solutions. —Reuters
There have been efforts to create women-friendly transportation solutions, but they haven’t been able to scale as solutions. —Reuters

For women, taking back the wheel has always been a herculean task.

In neighbouring India, for instance, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the female labour force participation fell from 34 per cent in 1999 to 27 per cent in 2011 by seven percentage points, despite the economy growing significantly. India has failed to integrate women into the labour force and one of the major reasons given by analysts is, piety.

In Pakistan, the situation is much more dire. Pakistan’s female economic activity rate lags behind at 15.8 per cent (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2014). It is almost as if Pakistani women were filed in the non-asset category; a relic stowed away in the basement.

When it comes to piety as a factor in keeping women out of the economic pie, the notion goes something like this: the most pious woman is the least seen one – public space is a no-no.

Public transport is an even bigger no-no.

As families struggle to keep afloat financially and are forced to educate and get women to work, there is a seeming clash between necessity and the false notion. The result: women are stripped of their dignity, going from place A to B.

In Pakistan, seeing a woman on a Vespa scooter as one often does in the cities of India, is an anomaly – a fact that any sane Pakistani should shudder to think of (as opposed to, say, the number of nuclear weapons we have less or more of than India).

Ultimately, survival is linked to the country that first gets its women into the active workforce. But how to do that?

A woman behind a wheel, symbolically and literally speaking, puts herself securely behind the ability to save herself. With domestic violence high up in the 90 per cent range, there is a lot of saving needed and it is unlikely to come from the perpetrators.

More empowerment is linked to less subservient conditions in the household. The subversive culture is ubiquitous: if women are not being coerced into doing backbreaking chores, they are being bruised; if they are not deprived of an education, they are restricted to being a part of community uplift programs; if they are not segregated, they are humiliated in terms of their sexuality though notions of honour.

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The very reason women are kept out of public view by men is to protect them from the patriarchy that men themselves perpetrate. The irony is unmistakable. The eventual solution is to alter men’s schemas, but that is work that is generational. For now, we must make change happen for the women.

A local women’s transportation solution, SheKab, published some data in an informal survey of travellers between the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi and revealed that about 90 per cent of their respondents travelled from Rawalpindi to Islamabad and about 50 per cent of all women travellers used public transportation; 15 per cent use taxis, while only 30 per cent had access to their own vehicles.

For half of the women who use public transportation, it may feel like stepping into a bin under a public hospital bed. Even with more modern transportation networks like the metro in place, the harassment women face is still an unsolved part of the problem – almost all have been groped, rubbed against, gotten stare-downs, have been subjected to sexual innuendos and overall manhandling during rush hours.

For a society built on piety, there is very little respect for women to go around.

Who is to say that without harassment, there would be an X-fold increase in the use of public transportation. There have been efforts to create women-friendly transportation solutions like the pink taxi, pink rickshaws, etc. but they haven’t been able to scale as solutions.

Also, solutions that segregate as part of the scheme possibly play into the notion that those women who can’t use these options and end up using other modes of transport, are fair game to come into physical contact with men – drivers, conductors, guys generally hanging out in the women’s sections, fellow passengers who spill over, etc.

Ask any woman to outline her public transportation experience and it invariably involves having to take off a slipper and toss it at a face blowing kisses or a hand that is unconstrained. We don’t have to walk over coals to travel to work, we should be able to do it with some semblance of dignity.

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That is the situation that Women’s Transportation Hackathon, organised by The Pakistan Innovation Foundation, set off to find solutions for. The event was a national call to this most urgent transport emergency; starting small at first, with Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The ideas competition opened on Independence Day, and is multi-pronged, calling for submissions in four areas: communications and behavioural change; use of innovative technologies; new business models for sustainable transport for women; design of new forms of transport attuned to the needs of women.

We need more women to #TakeBackTheWheel under this campaign, so women can find a path to economic empowerment.

Want to see a change? Be it. Send your ideas. Who knows, Pakistan could build an Uber-like solution for a piety-linked problem.

Find out more on their Facebook group.

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