Karachi, Pakistan – Fareeha Butt dreads her morning commute. Not because of the distance she must travel – it’s only a 20-km (12.4-mile) bus ride from her home near Drigh Road, a middle-class neighbourhood, to her offices in Karachi’s upscale Boat Basin, where she works as an executive secretary.
What the 43-year-old finds unbearable – and sometimes frightening – is the barrage of sexual harassment she faces on the city’s public transport.
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“The bus network in Karachi is out of control. I’m not even sure how aware the government is how women are treated on these buses. And even if they were aware, would they even do anything for us?” asks Butt.
Butt’s experience is far from unique. Millions of women in Pakistan run a gauntlet of sexual harassment on public transport, turning simple commutes into an unpleasant and sometimes dangerous undertaking.
In the absence of official and enforced measures to tackle this problem, women have few good choices.
“Most women on buses don’t say anything, and even if you try to speak up, other women quiet you down to avoid making a scene,” says Butt. “If you complain to the bus conductor, they tell you to get off. There’s no solution, just get off. Its complete thuggery.”
The epidemic of harassment reverberates far beyond individual women. Because many female commuters either work or study, if they are forced to alter their routines due to harassment, it could undermine their financial independence and negatively impact the broader economy.
But a new pilot project seeks to help women in Karachi bypass public transport by empowering them with a private alternative.
Road to economic emancipation
Anwar-ul-Hassan sits with his 20-year-old daughter Ayesha amongst a sea of uniformed college girls at a launch event in Karachi for Women on Wheels, an initiative of the Salman Sufi Foundation that teaches women how to ride motorbikes.
Hassan says that his daughter will be safer on her own motorbike than on the buses or rickshaws on which she would otherwise have to rely.
“There is so much humiliation ladies have to face on public transport,” Hassan tells Al Jazeera. “I think it’s better for all daughters to have their own transport, at least they are away from direct contact of men.”
Launched in 2016 in Punjab Province only to lose funding in 2018 when a new government came to power, Women on Wheels was revived in Sindh Province in November 2019.
Currently partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and UN Women, Women on Wheels starts by teaching women to drive motorcycles, then provides them with subsidised loans to purchase their own vehicles. Licence fees are also waived for all women who complete the programme.
“In Sindh, we are specifically targeting universities as training centres to accommodate a larger number of applicants within a trusted premise to encourage applications,” Salman Sufi, the head of Women on Wheels, tells Al Jazeera. “Academic institutions also ensure the sustainability of the programme.”
Women on Wheels has taken commercial partners on board, including ride-hailing apps Bykea and Careem, which was recently acquired by Uber for $3.1bn.
Some 2.3 million men in Karachi have motorcycle licences, compared with just 4,052 women in all of Sindh Province, according to the Sindh Police Traffic, Licence and Training division.
“We have hundreds of thousands of trips women take with us every single day across the country,” Asad Khan, the general manager Careem, tells Al Jazeera, adding that the company is committed to recruiting 10,000 women motorcyclists as drivers.
“Female workspace needs more flexibility,” he adds. “They have the burden of running a home and working, that’s how society works right now. This is empowering, and also flexible.”
Bykea has roughly half a million motorcycle drivers registered in Karachi. Danish Khalid, who heads partnerships for Bykea, tells Al Jazeera that the company would “take in as many women drivers as possible who want to be driver partners”.
The value of women’s mobility
The menace of sexual harassment has long influenced the way Pakistani women move and dress in the public sphere, discouraging them from inhabiting public spaces on equal terms with men.
That can have a devastating impact on women’s financial livelihoods and their contribution to the national economic wellbeing.
“The 2030 Agenda for reducing poverty, promoting decent work for all and achieving gender equality cannot be realised without prioritising women’s economic participation and investing in transportation facilities that increase women’s mobility and access to economic opportunities,” Aisha Mukhtar, Pakistan’s deputy country representative for UN Women, tells Al Jazeera, referring to the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
Karachi resident Neha Sikander takes public transport to college every day. The 19-year-old told Al Jazeera that her uniform makes her a target for catcalling and other aggressive behaviour by men as she waits at the bus stop.
“You have to ignore all this. These comments are not important to me,” Sikander said, adding that she knows going to college is the right decision for her, regardless of how anyone treats her for asserting her independence.
Women who want to ride motorcycles sometimes face family objections.
Sakina Asghar, a mother of four children and a teacher, is unable to afford a car. Though a motorcycle is a viable alternative, she encountered bitter opposition from her husband when she enrolled in Women on Wheels.
But he learned the value of women’s mobility, she says, when he suffered a heart attack and she was able to rush him to the hospital on her motorbike.
“You have to embrace the positive, and then positive things will happen to you,” Asghar tells Al Jazeera. “It’s about demanding equal respect to be on the same roads as men. This is not about gender equality, but mutual respect. Respect for men, women, children, everyone – it’s a basic human right.”
Mobility is often the first mile in a long road towards realising women’s economic emancipation.
In Pakistan, men make 34 percent more than women on an average hourly basis, according to the International Labour Organization. That represents double the average global gender wage gap.
“Whether the women will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, that kind of economic empowerment, that benefit, is still something which the jury is out on,” says Afia Salam, a 63-year-old former air traffic controller and social activist from Karachi.
She tells Al Jazeera that when women do start contributing financially, patriarchal attitudes can soften towards programmes like Women on Wheels.
“This programme will definitely allow women to be a stronger part of the economy,” Salam says. “It’s always about things women shouldn’t do, but when the money starts coming in, somehow that kind of opposition dies.”
For some women enrolled in Women on Wheels, there’s no U-turn on their road to economic freedom.
“These roads belong to men as much as they belong to women. And if you’re going to challenge patriarchy, mobility plays a huge role in it,” Kulsoom Zehra, a 35-year-old market researcher, tells Al Jazeera. “You cannot challenge patriarchy by sitting at home.”