*Originally posted on the Dawn Blogs:
The Punjab government’s Women on Wheels programme was initiated this 10th by a rally of 150 women trained by the Special Monitoring Unit on Law & Order and City Traffic Police.
According to a report in the Daily Times:
“The campaign is aimed at increasing women mobility and presence in public spaces by providing them free lessons in motorbike driving,” said PML-N MNA Maiza Hameed. “The Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) had launched this campaign for educating the women of Punjab against harassment and violence,” she said, adding that the campaign involved workshops to provide women with free motorcycle lessons and also to educate them on their role in society. “Women from all walks of life are invited to ride motorcycles on a pre-specified road,” Hameed said.
The WoW programme took off but not without condemnations on social media littered mainly with charges of “bayhayai”.
That the sight of women on motorbikes is obscene and repugnant to some in a country where hundreds of children are horrifically and despicably abused for years, an issue soon forgotten, spells volumes about the warped and twisted sense of outrage possessed by many in Pakistan.
It is also mind-boggling how the sight of women with men on motorbikes isn’t “beyhayai” but women alone on motorbikes definitely are. Why?
There is little doubt that this line of thought owes itself to the deep-seated scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces in Pakistan. This is a scandalization resulting from any breach of the chaar diwari; a concept, set in values of honour, which frankly holds scant compatibility with the 21st century, but which nonetheless designates and limits women to the boundaries of the private sphere.
To reiterate what I have asserted previously, this scandalization is a part of the bigger problem women in Pakistan face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.
It is about time that we open our minds and stop treating public spaces as a distant realm for women, off-limits to them, in which their presence and participation is an anomaly that must be demonised and thwarted. It is such a view that often sanctions and promotes hostile conditions for when women when they do step into public spaces, which range from roads, educational institutions to work places, because “that isn’t where they are supposed to be”.
And it is in view of this that an initiative such as Women on Wheels is important and necessary, precisely because it resists this myopic idea by attempting the normalization and empowerment of female engagement with public spaces.