During the three months that I spent in Berlin this year, I learnt to envy the typical German woman. She lives in the same universe as me, she walks the same Earth as me, sits across from me at work, yet the rules that she lives by in her country, the opportunities that are open to her and the independence that she experiences everyday — these are all things I could never imagine for myself in my own country, not in this lifetime.
However, this envy goes to another level when I see a German woman whizzing by in her second-hand bicycle while I trudge along with my heavy bag. The heavy bag I carry has not so many physical contents as emotional ones. Because I packed with me from Pakistan all the arguments I’ve had over the years as to why a woman should not dare to get on a bike. And despite all my best efforts, I still haven’t learnt how to ride one.
The first rationale given to make Pakistani women stay away from biking is that if they went out in the streets of Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad on a bicycle, it would be inviting harassment.
But aren’t women already facing harassment when they ride public buses with men, take taxis, drive alone or even sit in the back of a motorcycle awkwardly holding a tiny infant? How would the harassment they face riding a bicycle be any different?
Then there are the reasonings of the moral police. Actually, there’s not much of an argument they offer after they declare cycling ‘haraam’. For some even a fully-covered woman travelling on a bicycle is supposedly promoting vulgarity and enticing men. One wonders if men are just innately enticed by anything that moves. But no, cycling is declared uncouth, unladylike and ‘westernised’. Of course, it’s more ‘ladylike’ to depend on a man for all your activities throughout your lifetime.
And then there are the circumstances and the realities on ground that are hard to argue with. Pakistan does not have the infrastructure to support this activity: no tracks and paths for bicycles, or the kind of roads that permit cycling. But my sisters in most of the developing world face pretty much the same problems, yet they are on their cycles everyday.
But all the reasons and baggage aside — if we start doing this small painless activity, if we had the liberty to go as and when we please, Pakistani men could no longer control our lives. If we could go to school or work on our own, we’d be equal to them in standing. We’d be healthier, happier and more willing and motivated to break the chains that bind us. We could be contributing to environmental change, earning our living more independently and spending it as we please. In a country with high income disparity, biking would erase the differences between the rich and the poor.
And maybe that’s a scary thought for some.
Maybe these were the reasons why I was never taught how to ride a bike in Pakistan. And so as an adult when I saw the biking culture of Europe, I felt idiocy, estrangement and loneliness — all at the same time. It was hard for me to imagine cities where 50% of all trips to school and work were made on cycles. In Copehagen, there was a biking highway, a biking embassy, biking blogs, and even Presidents who cycle every day. And for immigrant women who have never had the opportunity to learn how to bike, there are special institutes where they are taught to face the streets.
Compare that to Pakistan, where we sit around forever and wait for someone to take us around.
I’m tired of hating cultures and all the liberties they offer. It’s hard to live a life of envy. It’s hard to walk with all this baggage. Quite frankly, I’d rather cycle with it!
So I’m sending out this message in a virtual bottle hoping that Pakistani women interested in learning how to bike will give me a shout out. I’m hoping that Pakistani organisations interested in this concept will help us get enough bikes to get us started with this activity. I’m hoping that people will volunteer to teach struggling biking newbies like myself to learn how to cycle. And we, in turn, can multiply this effect and teach more women.
For now, I’ll go back to dreaming what it would feel like to have Seaview’s sandy wind in my hair as I whiz by the colourful camels and horses and brake just in time for some delicious gol guppas. And when I do brake, I don’t end up with eight stitches or with gol guppas in my hair and the gol guppay wala in my arms.
Let’s all go out together for a bike ride.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, January 6th, 2013.
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