Three girls are cycling ahead of me, one trailing with a poster that reads #GirlsOnBikes. Another has one hung on her back:
‘Hamari sarkein, hamara sheher.’
Fifteen bikers — an unusual sight of kameezes, long hair and dupattas— follow at their pace behind me. There is assurance in travelling in a pack, but our collective confidence is intentional and prepared.
Our all-women bike rally is based on a troubling reality: we are protesting street harassment against women.
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Earlier this month, a girl in Lahore was hit by a car of boys while cycling to join the Critical Mass group. The girl — Aneeqa — responded with indifference to their initial attempts at harassment. But that did not deter them; they drove closer, and rammed their car into her bike. The reaction was somehow justified in their head.
Our bike-rally is an act of solidarity for Aneeqa, who, I realise, is probably cycling right now with the girls in Lahore, hardly two weeks since her bruises healed. A thought bothers me: no matter how many girls we gather here and in Lahore today, no matter how many times we ride together in a show of protest, harassment and violence isn’t going to stop — that much we know.
Organise a bike rally, ask girls to come bearing posters, and men and allies to come up in a show of support? I let my thoughts wander as my feet pedal of their own accord; cycling might be mechanical, but it is also meditative. A girl pulls up beside me on her bike, and on impulse, we start talking.
“I didn’t realise we could talk to each other while cycling,” I think out loud. Then it hits me: it’s because I’ve never considered it an option.
I ask her why she showed up. Fifteen minutes before our ride was to begin, a group of 10 girls had already gathered with their bikes. A few boys were scattered outside Burger King with their cameras, helping first-timers with their helmets and postures.
“We will stay on the LEFT!” JK had emphasised to the crowd: a veteran cyclist, we were to follow her lead. Her instructions were both confident and assertive, betraying her familiarity of cycling on the streets.
At some point, after enough time and patience on the roads, the stares and catcalls recede to the background. Not because they stop but because enough time and turns (whether on a cycle, or on foot) can translate to a street familiarity grounded in confidence and comfort.
Cycling is no different, I think to myself. It is another way of navigating public space, and it offers an intimacy with the streets that a passenger seat simply cannot.
A few of the girls are cycling for the first time in public. Some don’t even know how to ride, but have shown up anyway. They are waiting at the finish line, with posters and moral support.
Most of us have cycled in public before, but never a route this long without the company of men.
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Strangely enough, the absence of male company or ‘protection’ concerns people even when the group in question consists of 20 girls on their bikes. After the ride, three girls will tell us how they were stopped by a concerned man. He wasn’t bothering them; he merely wanted to caution them and dispense some elderly advice:
“You three really should not be riding alone.”
Since when are three people considered to be alone? Only when they are women.
Once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you can’t really forget. Navigating public space works somewhat the same way — as young girls, we are taught not to do both. We grow up letting fathers, brothers and boyfriends take care of the streets and vehicles for us.
We set a dangerous habit in play, where women almost always sit in passenger seats, where we become accustomed to being shuttled around by drivers, where we are not disturbed by sitting sideways on a motorcycle, lest we open our legs. The city turns into a strange visual where men are scattered on every street corner and road stop, but heads gawk with tension and thirst every time a woman comes into public sight.
I have cycled on Karachi’s streets before, but never with such abandon. Even in the supposedly “safe” neighbourhoods of Clifton and Defence, my brain is on constant guard, watching out for some man’s eyes glued on me. A commentary reels in my head for defensive measure:
If you look, stare hard.
So what if you aren’t wearing a dupatta?
Keep some distance from that motorcycle.
Ignore the guy in the car signalling at you…
Whether walking or cycling, the protocol is routine: look straight ahead, hurry and get to where you are, don’t loiter and linger, lest something happens. But with the cocoon of 20 girls around me, I am able to relax and breathe a bit more.
Here is the wind in my face, breezing through my clothes; here is my body in control of my direction and space. How many of us can say that we move around Karachi without the watchful eyes of parental concern, or the constant policing and surveillance by our male guardians?
How silly this act seems; cycling on the roads — in broad daylight! — but how rare it is, how much a symbol of control, and how exhilarating the pleasure!
Distracted by the light-hearted conversation with my fellow cyclist, I forget why we are on the road. The harassment, Aneeqa’s story, all analyses fade somewhere as I find myself laughing at my new friend’s comments, pedaling to keep up.
Take a look: In conversation with my Dupatta
Something she says allows me to think selfishly for a moment. Our rally might make indirect ripples of impact, but perhaps we do not do these things as much for others, as for ourselves. Women are taught to plan their lives around paranoia that is, in a large part, self-inflicted and based on hearsay.
Spending leisure time on the streets and coming out of the experience unharmed, elated and pumped can make a serious dent to that paranoia, by rendering women perfectly capable and comfortable on the streets.
I often say this: spend enough time on the streets, cycling or otherwise, and you will feel the streets grow less threatening.
Start actively participating and owning public spaces with your feet, sounds and breath, and the men who scare you, will become men you know how to interact with — or to tell off as necessary.
Instead of being alien sites that can violate our bodies, public spaces can become sites we define on our own accord, and on our own terms.
We are experiencing this with each rotation of our feet, here, collectively.
A radio blasts an old Bollywood song, older than I have heard in a while. I hum with it out loud — a girl laughs. Ten minutes into the bike ride is enough to get to the heart of its purpose: finding these moments of abandon in open spaces, which we are told we will never have, because roads and streets are hostile and dangerous for women, or anyone associated with femininity.
Here is the thing: something starts unravelling when women start to enjoy themselves in public spaces, not just for us, but also for the people watching…one woman, two, three…a whole group of them...something twists and turns in our ideas of what is normal and what is possible and what is acceptable as we keep cycling on…something happens that cannot be taken back.
Just as once you learn how to cycle, you cannot forget, once you learn how to navigate public spaces, once you experience the allure of being in them, you cannot go back…you realise that the streets are terrifying only when we do not take to them.