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What is it about a girl cycling that says 'come harass me'?

Updated March 18, 2016

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It was a regular Sunday morning that typically starts out with an early morning bike ride — a routine that I have been following for the past four years.

I hopped on my bike, and as per usual, pedaled out to reach the spot where members of my cycling group, Critical Mass Lahore, gather every Sunday to explore different parts of this beautiful city.

I love these early-morning rides as it affords me traffic-free roads and fresh air.

Cycling in Safari Park Lahore. —Photo provided by author
Cycling in Safari Park Lahore. —Photo provided by author

I was enjoying the chilly morning breeze and empty roads when I realised that some boys in a white Cultus were tailing me.

At first, I did not take them very seriously because it is common for men here to get excited when they see women cycling.

But it started bothering me when they persisted. Eventually I decided to turn into the nearest service lane, hoping it might deter them.

But, they followed me there too.

Explore: Why do women walk so briskly in public?

I felt a sense of panic and tried to look for someone, anyone around I could approach for help but the roads were completely empty at this hour.

After howling and hooting at me at the top of their lungs and honking non-stop, they realised that they were unsuccessful in soliciting my attention.

They then hit my bike and sped away. This happened near Nirvana in DHA Lahore around 7am.

The push sent me hurtling forward; I fell flat on the road on my face. My helmet thankfully saved me from any head injuries, but there were other minor injuries and scratches on my body.

Dazed, I tried to recall their license plate number, I couldn’t. Their car was behind me the whole time. The only time they pulled up in front was when I was lying on the road after which they sped away.

The injuries sustained. —Photo by author
The injuries sustained. —Photo by author

We, at Critical Mass Lahore, are a close-knit family. Always looking out for each other, always there in times of need. Some of my friends from the cycling group came to my aid immediately.

They took me to a hospital, and spent almost the entire day by my side.

Take a look: The hell of harassment

Admittedly, this was not the first time I was harassed on the street. It has happened several times before but I avoided talking about those experiences, even with close friends and family, because I did not want them to worry about me every time I went out cycling.

Right after the incident with friends from my cycling group, Zaira and Zeeshan. —Photo provided by author
Right after the incident with friends from my cycling group, Zaira and Zeeshan. —Photo provided by author

Another reason for not sharing it publicly was to avoid discouraging other female cyclists from pursuing this activity.

After many years, the number of female cyclists in our group had recently seen a spike and I wanted the numbers to keep growing.

I gave it a lot of thought and decided that remaining silent about this incident was not the solution. I needed to speak up.

Harassment is real — any girl who has been born and raised in Pakistan experiences it every day, so much so that it starts to feel normal, something you're conditioned to live with. We begin to internalise it.

We face harassment in schools, markets, workplaces, and we face harassment while we're trying to get these places, on a bicycle or otherwise.

See: Sexually harassed at work? Meet the predators

I wasn’t going to let this deter myself or other women from cycling, with this thought, I shared the incident as a public post on my Facebook profile.

I wasn't sure what reaction my revelation would bring. I was expecting to receive some negativity. But only comments and messages of support poured in from all corners of the world.

A lot of people suggested that I have a male accompany me whenever I was going cycling, as it is not safe for girls to cycle alone, and while I respect the concern, that is not the solution to this urgent problem that requires profound cultural change. Today.

Read: 9 things Pakistani women don't need to be afraid of anymore

What if I want to cycle alone? What if I don’t want the company of men to make me feel safe in my own city?

Recently, Lahore has seen an upsurge in street crimes; one feels unsafe while walking, cycling or driving on the road.

We need to make our cities safer, not just for women but also for men.

While campaigns are being devised to empower women in public spaces, such as the ‘Pink Rickshaw Scheme’ and ‘Women on Wheels’, none of these initiatives will fully empower women until the root cause of the problem is addressed.

And to address it, we have to talk about it.

Those harassing women do it in a culture of impunity. Until they are not called out, until they are not punished, street harassment will not see any signs of abating in Pakistan.

For starters, I can't wait to get back on my bike again.

The author with her bike. —Photo provided by author
The author with her bike. —Photo provided by author