Free wheeling: in Karachi, Pakistan, cycling becomes joyful feminist protest

It’s 6am on a Sunday morning in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, when a rare sight emerges through hazily sunlit alleyways. A group of 25 girls and women – mostly teenagers under the age of 16, others up to 45 years old – carefully weave, on matching red bicycles, between the potholes, motorbikes and rickshaws of the inner-city Lyari district. Headscarves tucked under helmets and in single file through narrow streets, the women are on their way to Custom House Karachi, a grand, Colonial-era landmark that’s a two-hour trundle from their home district, and the endpoint of their weekly bike ride. As the cyclists navigate the uneven roads, men gawp and make comments. But the girls have practised comebacks.

Their journey began at Lyari’s Girls Café, a community centre supported by Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes, which has funded girls’ boxing, football and computer classes there since 2017. Local photographer Zulekha Dawood, who volunteers as a social mobiliser at the café, decided to start a bicycle club there in February 2018 after watching groups of boys cycling in the area and remembering hypocrisies from her own upbringing. “When I was a child, my brother and I used to ride bicycles in the streets of Lyari,” she recalls. “But when I turned 16 my mother told me to concentrate on my studies, and cooking, stitching and other things that were better for a girl’s future.” Pakistan is a traditionalist country: following the country’s independence from colonial British rule in 1947, its internal policies became increasingly conservative, in a post-colonial political backlash that somewhat played out in the social control over women and their participation in public space.

Dawood had joined the Girls Café in 2017 to teach Lyari-based girls the skills to help them find employment, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to empower them to cycle, too. In Karachi, mobility and transport is a particularly gendered issue. Counting 15 million citizens, it’s the seventh-largest city in the world and Pakistan’s economic hub – meaning that what was once a fishing village has evolved into a frenetic, polluted metropolis, where commuter bus routes offer limited services and cramped conditions that compromise the safety of women in public. Sexual harassment on public transport is common, and those who don’t get the bus are usually either forced to walk long distances, take expensive rickshaws or rely on male relatives to get to work or school. In low-income areas, like Lyari, many don’t have access to a car. All this has made some girls dream of their own means of transport – and a bike fits the bill. “Cycling is a healthy and environmentally friendly activity,” says Dawood. “Our purpose is to create a cycling trend.”

A trend is, in fact, emerging around the city – often seeing Karachi residents pick up bikes for the first time since childhood. Weekend mornings are gradually being populated by mixed-gender cyclist groups, such as GG Riders, the environmentally minded Critical Mass Karachi and via initiatives at the city’s NED University. There have even been a handful of women’s cycling groups in the city’s wealthier, leafy suburbs, although women on bikes are generally a rare sight. But conservative, religious attitudes and economic difficulties in Lyari conspire to make cycling riskier for Dawood and her crew.

“Lyari went through a lot of conflict over the last couple of decades,” says Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences. Much of her research has focused on Lyari, which until around 2014 was classified as a ‘no-go zone’ due to gang violence. “While social activities were greatly restricted during the years of conflict, the last few years have seen a gradual renewal of the vibrant cultural life that previously characterised Lyari, including the emergence of spaces catering to women and girls, particularly for sports.

“Lyari’s Girls Café is in an area where the Kutchi community live, who migrated from what is now Indian Gujarat. Even though Lyari is a multi-ethnic area that’s actually known for being fairly liberal, the Kutchi community is very conservative about women and girls’ mobility.”

Dawood held seven months’ worth of indoor bike lessons to her initial group of 7 to 9 girls, who learnt from girls whose brothers had taught them to ride, before they ventured into the streets (now, more than 70 girls are involved, although the numbers dropped during the Coronavirus pandemic). She’s since created a route from Lyari to Custom House that avoids major roads and the local religious madrassa school, and sets off early enough to avoid the crowds of men that have previously heckled or catcalled them.

“So many people frown at us, don’t support us or appreciate us,” says Najmunnisa Allahdad, a 16-year-old medical student who joined the cycling group with her sister and mother. “If our cycling group passes them, they say many bad words, they point at us and say cycling is for boys and girls should stay at home. First it intimidated me, but my parents support and motivate me. My mum cycles with us, because she says that if I’m alone, people will point their finger at me, but if she’s there, she can be the one to answer to them.”

In some instances, cycling can be actively dangerous for women. “When we started our bike club, people threw stones at us,” says Dawood. In January 2019, a cycle rally for transgender and women’s rights in Peshawar (northern Pakistan) had to be cancelled after threats from local religious groups. But generally, the risks for women are more related to social acceptance. Most of the girls that ride bikes with Lyari’s Girls Café have their less-conservative parents’ blessing, but some sneak out and cycle behind their relatives’ backs. And it’s not just local men who take issue with them cycling. “Many girls my age say cycling is wrong, and judge us,” says Allahdad.

So, what is it about a woman cycling in Pakistan that is so controversial?

“Generally, women’s mobility in Pakistan in quite restricted, especially when it comes to what’s seen as non-essential movement,” says Kirmani. “You see girls and women going to school, work, the hospital or the market, but girls going out to exercise or just have fun is not considered to be acceptable – getting on a bike is seen as frivolous. It’s linked to anxieties about sexuality and women’s bodies representing the honour of the family. If a girl is seen to be out of control, it’s seen as a shame or failure for the family.”

It’s also no coincidence that most of the girls cycling at Lyari’s Girls Café are young teenagers. “As girls get closer to the age of marriage, their parents start getting concerned about keeping them at home,” says Kirmani, echoing Dawood’s personal experience. “After marriage, female in-laws often take girls out of the public sphere, force them to leave their jobs and keep them busy with domestic tasks. There’s a lot more scrutiny on their movements.” This extends to other parts of women’s social lives: it’s often frowned-upon for girls to have social media accounts and mobile phones, too.

It’s this cultural mindset that limits women to domestic spaces, and that another group of activists in Karachi seeks to dismantle: Girls at Dhabas. Inspired by a famous book by Indian academics, Why Loiter?, the feminist collective went viral on social media for posting pictures of themselves at normally male-dominated dhaba tea stalls. Like with Dawood’s cycling club, the women behind Girls at Dhabas use everyday acts of transgression to not just claim public spaces as their own, but to have fun doing it. They ran a #FeministMapathon social media campaign last year, which encouraged women in Pakistan to lounge in the park, explore new neighbourhoods or sit at tea stands, all in the name of mixing protest with fun. In 2016, the group began a country-wide, annual bike ride called Girls on Bikes, in response to an incident in Lahore, where a woman was harassed and injured while riding her bicycle. The rally was supported by Full Throttle Pakistan, a bicycle shop in Karachi that rented out bikes and helmets.

“Having fun can be a feminist act,” says Kirmani. “And cycling has taken on symbolic significance in Pakistan. It seems to symbolise freedom, joy, excitement and adventure more than other kinds of physical activities. Older women reminisce about a time when you’d see women cycling a lot more, in the 50s and 60s. It seems to have a place in popular imagination.”

According to Dawood, it’s not yet possible for girls to ride unaccompanied as a means of transport. Most of the riders at Lyari’s Girls Café don’t have access to their own bicycles, and there’s safety in numbers if they cycle as a group. But it’s her dream to normalise the image of a woman on a bike, so that in the future it will become a tool for liberating women’s mobility.

“I hope in the future we will see all the girls of Karachi cycling in place of public transport,” Dawood says. “Even if other people here don’t accept cycling as a sport, they should at least accept it for exercising and for looking after the environment. We want to make it part of our culture.”

Perhaps she’s already made steps in that direction.

“The more you see women cycling, and just being outside for fun and enjoyment, the more normal it will become,” says Kirmani. “It will change perceptions of what public space should look like and disturb the idea of women only belonging in the private sphere. I’m sure Lyari’s Girls Café has already made changes in that way.”

For girls like Allahdad, it’s worth pushing the boundaries of social acceptability to experience the freedom and independence that riding a bike can bring.

“It makes me feel free, to have your own transport, passing the traffic and feeling so strong,” she says. “I hope in the future all parents support their daughters to cycle. It’s my wish that many, many girls will join us and go to university, college and school with their own bicycle.”