Wheels of change: Women cyclists take over Karachi’s streets

Published: February 6, 2013

Weldon Moms and members of Critical Mass arranged the successful event. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

Weldon Moms and members of Critical Mass arranged the successful event. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS Weldon Moms and members of Critical Mass arranged the successful event. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS Weldon Moms and members of Critical Mass arranged the successful event. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS
KARACHI: 

One small step for man, a giant leap for womankind – in Pakistan, at least.

All eyes were on at least 30 Pakistani women who came out on the streets of Karachi on Tuesday to cycle, have fun and make a point.

Although the number of cyclers was far below what was expected (171), the group of 30 women gathered outside Butlers Cafe at 7:30am and rode their bikes all the way from Zamzama to Sea View and back.

As cameras clicked around them, the women felt like celebrities with media vans, police, rangers and male cyclists following their every move and supporting their initiative in every way. Early morning drivers, nashta eaters, pedestrians stared at them with what looked like a combination of shock and envy.

None of this would have been possible if Anila Weldon, founder of Weldon Moms, and her friends Sameer Beg and Yahya from cycling group Critical Mass had not taken the initiative a few weeks ago to arrange this well-thought out and equally well-executed event.

Critical Mass is a cycling movement and group which started in the US and has more than 1,700 members in Pakistan today. They have been cycling for a few years and have taken rides all the way from Sindh to Balochistan; ridden to Quaid Azam’s mausoleum on independence day hoisting flags on their cycles and have never let a Sunday or an Eid day pass by without cycling.

“When you cycle early morning in Karachi, you experience the city in a completely different way. You feel the dips, uphills, downhills – you know every pothole by heart. Even the air feels fresh, and the roads look beautiful when you’re on a bicycle. It’s almost impossible to experience those things in a car,” says a young girl while riding her bike as I follow her slowly in my own car.

Another cyclist, Zarmina Ahmed shares, “Each time I wake up early morning, offer my fajr prayers and get ready to go out cycling with Anila and a few friends. My 17-year-old son always looks at me funny and says ‘Mama, why can’t you be like the other mums’.” Despite coming from a highly educated background, she still sometimes gets flak for cycling on the streets by her family.

But can she really blame them for being protective? It’s safe to say Karachi is quite unsafe, but these eager women, regardless of the situation in the city, are unstoppable.

While the cyclists continued slowly towards Sea View, I stopped by a growing line of men, women and children sitting on the side of a road waiting to be fed breakfast by a small dhabba. I asked the women if they understood what all the police cars and media vans were chasing. “Aurat cycle challa rahi hay (a woman is riding a cycle),” one of the women, Rakhshanda, pointed out.

Asked whether she would join them given the chance, another woman, Razia Bibi said, “Why not? Cycles don’t need petrol; neither do we need to pay any fare unlike in buses.”

However, one of the women was not impressed. When I asked her if she would participate, she shook her head and pointed towards her mouth, clearly meaning to say: Is cycling really a priority when one is going to sleep hungry?

I pose the same question to one, Mustansir Bandukwala, when the cyclers return from their 10km ride. “A joy ride on a cycle is possible at this time but to take this on a larger scale does not seem practical at the moment. There are so many other issues at play in Pakistan that our priorities are focused elsewhere. Culturally speaking, it will also not be accepted easily.”

But Anila and her friends have a different story to tell. “When they see us biking, a lot of men in cars give us a thumbs up or scream ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. We always go out early morning and till now we’ve never been harassed,” Anila said, but added, “Maybe it’s because the hooligans are dead asleep at the time.”

On the way back, I stopped to ask a driver washing his employer’s car his opinion on women cycling. “Islam does not allow it,” he said. But when asked to elaborate, the driver simply says, “Women should not be out on the streets. My wife and daughter stay at home and they have never spent a single night going to sleep hungry. When everything is provided to women, they don’t feel the need to get out.”

Although Tuesday’s event might have been successful in selling the concept of cycling in certain circles, it will take a long time for cycling for women to trickle down and be embraced by the average Pakistani.

View a slideshow of the event here.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Roger
    Feb 6, 2013 - 12:37PM

    On the way back, I stopped to ask a driver washing his employer’s car his opinion on women cycling. “Islam does not allow it,” he said

    Where do you find people like this? ET you’re proliferating the idea that Pakistan is full of nothing but Fundamentalist Islamists – very irresponsible. Additionally, how would you consider this a relevant counter opinion to the main topic?

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  • Ayesha
    Feb 6, 2013 - 1:55PM

    Guess what??? With all this news coverage now the mullahs n the extremist groups know about it……and we all know what that means

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  • Rabail
    Feb 6, 2013 - 3:33PM

    @Roger: Its called reporting from a balanced point of view. If that driver’s thinking did not exist in Pakistan, do you think they would need media, bomb disposal and security following women around?

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  • Ali S
    Feb 6, 2013 - 4:12PM

    It seems like ET’s interpretation of ‘Karachi’ doesn’t go far beyond Zamzama, Seaview, DHA and Clifton.

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  • Roger
    Feb 6, 2013 - 4:42PM

    @Rabail:
    I don’t disagree with you – Karachi isn’t a safe city. However, to maintain that drivers’ opinion as being that of the proletariat, which this article implies, is incorrect. You probably know this, but all newspapers have the ability to spin an article in any direction by filtering vox-pop to meet an end (stance) of their choosing. Instead of having an array of pro-cycling comments (which there are many) and an array of anti-cycling comments (which there are many) – we only have that of a driver. Balanced view point? I think not.

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  • Fly on the wall
    Feb 6, 2013 - 5:04PM

    I think that these cyclists are sending out a positive message to the rest of Pakistan. That is prevention is better than cure – traffic pollute the air, cause numerous kinds of illnesses for which the health service cannot provide medications due to fundings and it is the health service which should have encouraged such an initiation in your part of the world. Where I live, I have heard complaints from other commuters about the quality of the air that is deterioriating with each passing day and it smells really foul. Other cities in Europe are covered in smog which does’nt lift until late morning. I assume that this is also what you are experiencing in Pakistan and in Asia. People ought to get out of their cars and and peddle on their way to work. Even Boris, the mayor of London cycles to work and does not require a bullet proof car and a fleet of motorcyclists for escort. In Europe, it is the continentals like the Dutch who have almost half of their population cycling, closely followed by the Germans and others. UK, sadly, appears to lag behind, inspite of some improvements in the transport infrastructure.

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  • Saeed
    Feb 6, 2013 - 6:06PM

    Huh, I’d be impressed if this had happened in Lyari or Korangi. Try riding your bike in the real Karachi women, where even the men aren’t safe.

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  • indian
    Feb 6, 2013 - 8:37PM

    lol………. some women from elite class riding bicycle with huge security cover wont change the attitude of paki men towards women…lol…..this is so lame…..

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  • indian
    Feb 6, 2013 - 9:01PM

    pakistan is a highly conservative country…..simply letting elite women with guards ride cycle doesn’t mean women can ride cycle in pakistan…………….it will take a very long time before pakistan can have women driving cycles.. :)

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  • Pakistani
    Feb 9, 2013 - 1:34PM

    @indian: you really shouldn’t comment on women’s rights or women’s issues in any country :)

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  • Pakistani
    Feb 9, 2013 - 1:44PM

    as long as women dress modestly, and the LAW IS STRICT ON MEN … there is complete freedom for women in Islam

    the issue is the laws in the country are not enforced, men do not fear the law when eve teasing or passing remarks… and they issue is compounded when women wear provocative clothes and the media entices the hearts of men and women alike. the laws do not protect women and if you let women on the street wear provocative clothing, you are playing with fire.

    the fear of God needs to be put in the hearts of men by strictness of the law against them…and women need to be restricted from wearing provocative clothes… and the MEDIA be cleansed of promoting kinkiness

    if those criteria are met …. there is no problem for women going out and having a good time.a good comparison is whats happening in India. (not the rape case but the cases that are not on TV)

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