The Women on Wheels project, launched by the previous Punjab government, was lauded for improving women’s mobility and addressing serious issues faced by women in urban spaces. But it was discontinued by the current government. Eos looks back at the project’s impact
Sometimes, on a particularly trying day, Raheela Qaiser waits for nightfall, wheels her Honda Dream CD 70 out on to the road and goes for a ride. At this time, she has nowhere she needs to be and no traffic to contend with. So she takes this opportunity to go wherever she pleases. Mostly, she rides around the familiar streets of her neighbourhood in Nawab Town in Lahore for an hour or so before heading back home. That hour makes all the difference in the world. “I feel refreshed,” she says. “For a while, my worries take a backseat.”
Saeeda Gill* would agree.
Six years ago, Saeeda managed to convince her brother to teach her how to ride his motorcycle. She got the hang of it fairly quickly and began taking his bike out whenever she got the chance. She recounts a time, not long after she’d first learnt, when a college friend joked that a woman could never learn to ride a motorcycle properly. “I can ride,” Saeeda had responded, but he refused to believe her until she got on his bike and sped out on to the road. She took a lap around the area, thoroughly enjoying the stunned look on his face.
Soon after, she had an accident and refused to go near a bike again. That is until six months ago, when she took the training offered by the government programme Women on Wheels (WoW) and got the confidence to go back on the road.
It was the same programme that allowed 35-year-old Raheela to buy her motorcycle. WoW offered women both training and subsidised motorcycles. Raheela paid 27,000 rupees for the motorcycle upfront and paid off the rest in monthly instalments that, at around 1,800 rupees per month, were fairly affordable for her.
WoW, the brainchild of the former chief minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU), promised to aid women in a manner that was both sustainable and guaranteed them the ability to travel independently. Under the current government, however, the programme has been phased out. After the first 700-odd motorbikes were distributed, no more have reached the women they were supposed to benefit. According to Salman Sufi, the former director general of SRU, the money that was initially set aside for the 3,000 subsidised motorcycles is now sitting idly in the Bank of Punjab.
Sufi claims the new government simply didn’t see the point of the project, dismissing it as an ineffective use of resources. Apparently in a meeting in May this year, the Punjab transport department objected to the viability of the project saying the Rs90 million project did not justify its cost and was wasting a lot of money on advertisements in the print and electronic media to create awareness.
A representative of the transport department declined to comment for this story, claiming that such projects did not come under the purview of the department, even though the WoW project was under this very department.
But Sufi believes WoW was a crucial programme and is all set to relaunch it in a private capacity in Karachi and Peshawar. The aim now is to train at least 25,000 women in six months. Sufi feels that launching WoW privately will ensure that the programme runs into less problems because his team will not have to negotiate with any government-imposed restrictions.
Sufi and his team were working on the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (officially passed in 2016) when they found that mobility was a key issue for women looking to leave abusive homes. It soon became clear to them that mobility was an issue that many Pakistani women who do not own, or cannot afford, a car face on a regular, if not daily, basis. When it comes to stepping out in public space, be it for work, to study or just to run errands, most women have two choices. The first is to take public transport, which Sufi describes as being “in shambles.” The second is to ask their fathers, brothers or other male members of their family to pick and drop them. “This lack of mobility is an impediment to anything they want to do in their lives,” Sufi says.
With this belief, Sufi and his unit knew that they needed to facilitate women’s mobility. The question they were faced with was how. Cars were clearly too expensive to consider. It didn’t take long before they realised the solution had been right in front of them all along — motorcycles. Motorcycles provide an affordable alternative to cars and so, SRU began to design a programme under which women could get training, acquire their licences and buy subsidised motorcycles.
When it comes to stepping out in public space, be it for work, to study or just to run errands, most women have two choices. The first is to take public transport. The second is to ask their fathers, brothers or other male members of their family to pick and drop them.
SRU decided to conduct a test training to see how many women would be interested in their programme. They wondered if they’d get any response at all. After all, seeing a woman riding a motorcycle is rare in Pakistan. SRU put out a small Facebook ad and hoped for the best. Soon enough, over 60 women of all ages showed up, eager to learn how to ride a motorcycle. As of July 2018, only two years after the initial training took place, SRU had trained 4,000 women all over Punjab. In May 2018, SRU organised a rally in which the first 700 women who had applied for subsidised motorcycles were officially handed over the keys to their own bikes.
WoW was widely applauded for its efforts to facilitate women’s mobility, even earning Sufi the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice in 2018 in Mumbai. The programme seemed like an undeniable success. Its training aspect had run fairly smoothly and Sufi’s team was confident that they had met the initial aim of WoW — to give women the skills and confidence necessary to ride on main roads.
However, WoW ran into a series of problems in the second phase of the project, which was to provide women with subsidised motorbikes. Fatima Khalid, a former associate at SRU, says the eligibility criteria established by various stakeholders caused a lot of problems because each stakeholder had their own set of demands. “We had the bank [of Punjab], the transport department, as well as Honda. The bank wanted the down payment to be a certain amount and the government wanted the subsidy to only be for low-income groups. Those women who qualified for the subsidy would often be unable to make the down payment for the motorcycle,” she claims.
Shahzeb Naeem, who was also an associate at SRU, says that the application process that was set up for those who wanted to buy a subsidised bike was both inconvenient and tedious. “A lot of documentation was required, ranging from domiciles, CNIC verifications, affidavits and a guardian’s signature. The process was not user-friendly at all.” Despite this, both Naeem and Fatima emphasise that this was a pilot-based project and improvements could definitely have been made had the current government felt this was a programme worth investing in. “In order for the streets to get safer, women have to come out on to the streets,” says Fatima. “If women don’t come out, the streets will not get any safer.”
In September this year, the Punjab Transport Department announced that it will be launching women-only buses and that efforts will be taken to provide waiting areas, toilets and safe drinking water for female passengers. This was ostensibly as a response to criticism about the abandonment of the WoW project which had focused on women’s mobility. Yet, some are sceptical of these new measures. Fatima points out that this is not the first time women-only buses have been launched in Punjab and that, so far, this has not been a hugely successful venture. According to a 2018 international policy brief, Overcoming Barriers to Women’s Mobility: Improving Women’s Access to Public Transport in Pakistan, women-only buses that ran prior to the change in government operated on limited routes, ran half-empty and did not resolve the problem of women continually feeling unsafe in public spaces.
In order to assess whether subsidy programmes such as WoW are sustainable, there is a need to look beyond economic costs and to focus on the social and economic benefits that are being gained.
“Theoretically it is easy to state that public transport is the way to go,” says Fatima, “But at the moment, women are simply not able to access public space because everything is either not accessible or too expensive.” Because of this, giving women free training and a subsidised motorcycle is a low-cost and effective way to facilitate them in accessing public space as they may please without being dependent on anyone. Although the project did not run for very long, Fatima believes we need to see beyond the statistics. “The impact of the project is not in the numbers but in the stories these numbers represent,” she says.
Perhaps the best way to assess the impact of the WoW project is to see what it means to the women who have benefitted from it. After all, when thinking about the programme, the image that instantly comes to one’s mind is not that of the SRU but of the hundreds of female motorcyclists present at the widely publicised May 2018 rally where scores of women rode together. At the time, the amount of support the rally received heralded an exciting new chapter for Pakistani women and their mobility. But, beyond that moment, how has the programme helped those women who now ride on the streets of Lahore every day?
Raheela meets me at the Jinnah Hospital cafeteria. I spot her instantly, a tall woman standing next to an unabashedly pink motorcycle. Raheela is a busy woman. She works as a pre-school coordinator from morning to afternoon, and her evenings are dedicated to taking care of her ailing parents. But she is meeting me for an interview because she firmly believes that WoW has changed her life for the better.
In 2012, Raheela’s parents had an accident and were both bedridden for months. “That was the first time I felt I had to move around the city without any trouble, that this was something I needed to learn,” she says. By ‘trouble’, she means vans, rickshaws or any form of private conveyance which were not only expensive but inconvenient to take on a daily basis. She began to take her father’s bike out to run various errands but only gained the confidence necessary to ride on main roads after she signed up for WoW’s training programme.
It was not always a smooth ride. “My family was initially against it, saying that girls have no business riding bikes. Even my sisters were against it, but I stood my ground,” she says, asking how she could have supported her family without mobility. As time went by, her family too began to see the benefits of Raheela’s mobility and, in fact, it was her father who encouraged her to take the WoW training. Within a week of the training, she took her father’s motorcycle out on to the main road for the very first time.
Raheela feels that the only reason the government would have for stopping the programme is because they are unaware of how important initiatives like WoW are for women like her who cannot afford a car. “This is not just the story of one Pakistani household,” she says. “The lives of so many girls can be made easier with a scheme like this.” When asked if she has ever faced harassment on her motorcycle, she does not hesitate to answer. “I cannot say there is zero harassment but, having my own motorcycle has been so beneficial for me, this harassment is personally something I can ignore.” She also believes the harassment she faces when on her bike is far less than what she faced in the years she was compelled to use public transport. Things will only improve if more women are riding motorcycles. Seeing women on motorbikes will become an everyday occurrence and they will face less harassment, she says. Otherwise, the few women who are currently riding on the streets will remain anomalies and at greater risk of harassment.
“I say the only difference between me and so many other girls is that I choose to sit in the front seat.”
In the last few years, Raheela has only seen a total of eight to 10 pink motorbikes on the streets of Lahore. She suspects that some of the bikes that were initially distributed to the women who had enrolled have been painted over and are now used by the male members of their family. But this does not dishearten her. She says it will take time for people to accept these changes. And when she does see a woman riding a motorbike or a scooter, it makes her day. “Just the other day I saw a mother riding a scooter with her little children sitting in front of her, all in school uniform. She was probably picking them up from school.”
The only criticism she has of WoW is that she felt there were not enough training centres and staff — a problem, she believes, could easily be resolved with time and more resources.
Raheela has been riding for so long now that those members of her extended family who initially disapproved of her riding are now encouraging their own daughters to learn. “I see changes within my own family,” she says with a proud smile on her face. Many of her friends and colleagues have also expressed a desire to learn and follow Raheela’s path. “Just this month I have gotten three or four phone calls from various women who want to know how I learnt to ride and how they can learn too. I don’t know how to break the bad news to them.”
Ujjala Fatima was 17 years old when she hopped on to a motorbike for the first time and rode around the compound. She was clearly a natural and took the bike out on to the main road the very first chance she got.
“I’ve always been very independent,” she says, “I never liked that girls have to ask their fathers or brothers to take them everywhere.”
Having successfully learnt how to ride, the next step in Ujjala’s journey to independence was having her own bike. A year later, she was the proud owner of a United 100cc scooter and could now go anywhere she needed without having to inconvenience anyone else.
“My life has been made much easier now that I can ride,” Saeeda says. “The only problem is that it becomes difficult to ride a motorbike when it rains in Lahore.”
Because Ujjala had learnt to ride in isolation, she was delighted to discover that a motorcycle rally was being organised for women by WoW. She thoroughly enjoyed participating in the May 2018 rally. She remembers the joy she felt riding with women from all walks of life. Everyone was on the road. From ministers to students; from city girls to women from out of town; from older women to younger girls. “Even celebrities like Meesha Shafi,” Ujjala says.
The rally marked an important moment for her. It was the first time she felt that hundreds of women could actually ride out on to the roads in Pakistan. But she thinks not enough has been done to bring about real sustainable change. “Progress was slow even when there was a government training programme. Now, without the programme, it will take years for a lot of women to come out on to the roads.”
The problem is not just the lack of programmes and government support. Ujjala says that family disapproval is the main reason girls do not ride. “Lots of girls want to be able to learn but families always make a fuss saying, ‘Log kya kaheinge?’ [What will people say?] or that people on the road will stare, even though nobody ever stares at me!” She grins. She’s had similar experiences within her family. But she does not pay much heed to her extended family members who claim that she is “ruining” the Syed name. Some members of her family have even stopped talking to her but this has not deterred Ujjala in the slightest. “I say the only difference between me and so many other girls is that I choose to sit in the front seat.”
Ujjala is the only girl at the Lahore College for Women who rides and owns her own scooter. Over the weekend, she is usually out on the road either heading to her parents’ house, her mamu’s or for a Girl Guides meeting. She always feels supported by those around her on the road. “A lot of people give me a thumbs up when they realise I’m a girl. Some motorcyclists even make way for me but I’ve never been followed or catcalled.”
Saeeda does not ride a motorbike on a daily basis, but she still considers this to be an important skill for women to learn. “Whenever there is no other conveyance available, I can take the bike and sometimes a bike is the most convenient way to move in Lahore’s terrible traffic,” she says. “I often take my mother and sisters shopping on the bike.
“My life has been made much easier now that I can ride,” Saeeda says. “The only problem is that it becomes difficult to ride a motorbike when it rains in Lahore.”
Looking back at WoW’s training programme, Saeeda says the training she received was very good and that the traffic wardens who trained her were extremely helpful and encouraging. However, she felt there were some problems with the programme. “The timings were too limited,” she tells Eos. “Not everyone would have been able to go in the time slots they had, and I think that is why some women who wanted to learn didn’t end up going.” She also points out that a lot of the girls who came for the training did not go on to get their licenses made and the programme should have found a way to ensure that the girls procured their licenses.
In order for women to truly feel safe in their own cities, there needs to be a public reimagining of what a sustainable and accessible city looks like. A city where women may bike, take the bus or even just walk outside with no fear of what may happen to them.
After her training, Saeeda had also hoped to apply for a subsidised motorcycle but was unable to. She says that no information was provided regarding the subsidy scheme when she went for the training. Instead, she was told that there were currently no application forms available and that someone would get in touch with her when the forms came in. But that call never came and she has not received any more information. It is likely that by the time Saeeda went for her training, the subsidy aspect of the project had been phased out.
Nonetheless, Saeeda believes that the suspension of the training programme is a step backwards, “All over the world, women are learning how to ride motorcycles and this is seen as a totally normal thing.”
Saeeda says that she has not faced any harassment on the road since she has begun to ride. “The trick is to look confident, like you know what you are doing,” she says laughingly. “I know that, if I am confident and know my route and the rules of the road, then nobody will dare harass me. People will look a little, but that’s about it.” She says wearing a helmet offers further protection against harassment because her face and hair are concealed.
Urban planner, Fizzah Sajjad believes that programmes such as WoW can have immense social benefits. She emphasises that, in order to assess whether subsidy programmes such as WoW are sustainable, there is a need to look beyond economic costs and to focus on the social and economic benefits that are being gained. However, she adds that “the expansion and improvement of our public transport system is critical to facilitate mobility in a sustainable manner.”
Mehrbano Raja, a Lahore-based environmental activist and feminist thinks that WoW was an important initiative but that the programme alone would never be enough in a city that desperately needs public transport to improve so that women can move around in a more sustainable manner.
Raheela, Saeeda and Ujjala say, however, that even if public transport were to improve dramatically over the next few years, they would still continue to ride motorcycles. Raheela says that her bike guarantees her independence and safety in a way that public transport never can. It is worth noting, however, that although women like Raheela regularly bike around the city, this is still not a city they actually feel safe in. Much more work needs to be done in order to make Pakistani cities friendlier towards women. Sajjad says some necessary steps include social campaigns that focus on women’s right to mobility, training of police officers to adequately manage complaints and provision of shade for commuters during the hot climate.
In order for women to truly feel safe in their own cities, there needs to be a public reimagining of what a sustainable and accessible city looks like. A city where women may bike, take the bus or even just walk outside with no fear of what may happen to them. However, the phasing out of the WoW programme and the insufficient work being done to facilitate women’s mobility in general indicates an apathy towards gender inclusive city planning. “Planning in our cities, unfortunately, remains gender-blind,” says Fizzah.
*Name changed to protect privacy
With additional reporting by Mansoor Malik
Amna Chaudhry is a freelance writer based in Lahore.
Header photo by Shahabaz Butt/White star
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019