"The sidesaddle took hold in the 14th century to protect the virginity of a teenaged princess traveling across Europe to wed the young King of England,” writes American journalist and author Jana Bommersbach of the policing of how women were to sit on a horse during the Middle Ages. According to her, Princess Anne of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was traveling to England to marry King Richard II when she was instructed to ride aside rather than astride.
Ancient Greek sculptures also show women riding aside; by the turn of the 16th century, it was believed to be the only ‘ladylike’ way to sit on a horse in Europe. “The woman does not live who can throw her leg over the back of a horse without profaning the grace of femininity,” a male columnist elaborated in the Los Angeles Times in 1905. A similar mindset has kept women in Pakistan from choosing motorcycles – the most affordable mode of private transport – for their commutes.
While one can find many women in neighbouring India donning helmets and manoeuvring through the congested streets of Mumbai and New Delhi, a woman on a motorcycle is a rare sight even in Karachi, a city of 7.6 million women, according to the latest census. Thankfully, the Punjab government has taken a commendable step to shatter this entirely unreasonable pretension.
Earlier this year, the provincial government launched a motorbike subsidy scheme as part of its ‘Women on Wheels’ initiative. Under the scheme, it aims to provide 3,000 customised motorcycles at subsidised rates along with free driving lessons. On May 13, the Punjab government handed the keys of 700 motorcycles at an event in Lahore as part of the initiative. After the event, the women participated in a motorcycle rally. Hundreds of women riding in tandem — just as they did two years ago in January 2016 for another ‘Women on Wheels’ rally, with the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir riding pillion on The Mall.
It is not just that these women now have the freedom of mobility; it is a fitting response to jeering men like the American columnist who believe femininity must be governed by rules set by men. A casual glance at reactions to the third annual bike rally organised by Girls at Dhabas, a small group fighting to reclaim public space for women in Pakistan, is enough evidence of the hate something as elementary as a woman riding a bicycle can elicit. When the group held concurrent bike rallies in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad on April 1 this year and posted photos on social media, a large number of men sent supportive messages. But an equal number of men were livid. For them, a woman on a bicycle was the pinnacle of depravity. In an environment this hostile, the Punjab government’s initiative carries even more significance.
There are over 100 million women in Pakistan, nearly half the population. They are doctors, artists, stay-at-home mothers; they are breadwinners and heads of households. They are second to none. Their contribution to the economy is massive, and yet the potential for more is greater. Gulaban, 25, a housewife and mother of three from Thar’s Hindu community, drives an imposing 60-tonne truck. Zenith Irfan, a student from Lahore, is the first Pakistani woman to drive across the country on her motorcycle — the subject of a recent biopic directed by Adnan Sarwar. Then there are countless other women compelled to get behind the wheel to make ends meet. Will we deny them? No country can possibly progress by inhibiting one half of its population and depriving it of equal opportunity. And for that, we do not need to reinvent the wheel; we only need to ensure there is just one direction it moves: forward.
This was originally published in Herald's June 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.