Everything I learned as a young woman using Careem's bike-sharing service

Updated 09 Nov, 2017 03:02pm

Yusra Jabeen

Could you share a bike with a total stranger as part of your daily commute? I did, and I'm a woman

Given social pressures, it's naturally a struggle when you force yourself to defy the norm and sit on a motorbike the way men sit
Given social pressures, it's naturally a struggle when you force yourself to defy the norm and sit on a motorbike the way men sit

I am a 28-year-old single woman, born and brought up in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, a residential area of Karachi that largely houses upwardly mobile yet traditionally conservative middle-class families.

This may be a generalisation but families like mine expect women to get an education but remain well within the bounds of patriarchal norms. Dupattas, for example, are a must. When we seat ourselves on motorcycles, our back rolls and heavy bottoms must not burst through our shirts, the chaaks of which are carefully placed in a way to hide our thighs in our shalwars. We sit with our legs crossed as if we're sitting on a sofa in our drawing room. You know, 'like a lady'.

We're largely dependent on our brothers, fathers or paid drivers to take us around this city. Sometimes, we take rickshaws. Other times, we have to ask for permission and/or money, so we can pay for a Careem ride and get on with our lives.

So it's naturally a struggle when you force yourself to defy the norm and sit on a motorbike the way men sit (I call this way of sitting the 'normal' way).

This is me sitting on a bike the safe way.
This is me sitting on a bike the safe way.

And it's even more difficult when the man behind whom you're sitting is not your patriarch but a stranger providing you a ride-hailing service.

My first bike ride

When Careem first introduced their bike-hailing service, I was pleased because I knew this would be cheaper than their car option. I use Careem for my commute regularly and sometimes, it can get expensive.

The typical Careem bike ride is 30-40 percent cheaper than its car option, so I figured: why not use it?

However, from what I've gathered, in Pakistan, it is more objectionable for a young woman to use a bike-hailing service than a car-hailing service, so I knew it would not all be smooth sailing. Fearing a reaction, I didn't tell anybody at home I was going to do this.

Here's me taking a helmet selfie near the New Town area
Here's me taking a helmet selfie near the New Town area

The first time I hailed a bike ride was from my office near II Chundrigarh Road to Tipu Sultan Road. I had to pick up a signed copy of Malala's autobiography I am Malala that someone wanted to get rid of.

I sensed nervous energy building up inside me as soon as I pressed Chalo on the Careem app. Among other things, I questioned my clothes (I didn't have a dupatta on me and my shirt only covered half my thighs). Soon, I got a call from Careem and it was the rider on the other side, asking if I had mistakenly called for a bike instead of a car.

"No, I called for a bike," I told him, laughing internally.

Reaching within two minutes, the captain confirmed my name and offered me a helmet, which I was very pleased to receive. "Do you want a surgical cap too?" he asked. I must have looked confused because he then explained: "We sweat in the helmets when it's hot outside so the company has given us these caps to maintain hygiene."

'Hmmm. Impressive,' I thought to myself.

On the way to Espresso in my first Careem bike ride.
On the way to Espresso in my first Careem bike ride.

I made a small faux pas though: As I mounted the bike I placed my hand on the captain's shoulder, not realising I'd be invading his personal space. I apologised immediately and asked him if it was okay to place my hand on his shoulder for support should there be a bump.

"Koi issue nahi hai, madam," he said, reassuring me. "Aap araam se baithi hain? (Are you sitting comfortably?)" he inquired, and I assured him I was fine. All set, we left for my destination.

And it was fun. The breeze that night was amazing and the bike ride felt as if I was in an amusement park. I enjoyed the sensation of driving in the open air, plus the driver was really nice too! Courteous, professional and safe, I gave him five stars.

Once the ride ended, I thanked him for a pleasant experience. In his response, he said it was his first "miracle ride" on a bike with a female in Karachi. Yeah, I'll take that.

The next few bike rides offered a similar experience. A delightful trip, swaying on the roads, cutting through the traffic, upwards and downwards on the flyovers. A total mood changer.

Can you tell how much fun I was having?
Can you tell how much fun I was having?

I also saved a truckload of money, experienced no peak factors and spent less time on the road.

Independence feels amazing, I tell you!

My bad experience

But independence doesn't come without a fight. Even though most of my rides went smoothly, every time I hailed a bike I mentally prepared myself should anything go wrong. 'It's going to be okay, Yusra,' I'd tell myself. Or, 'Who cares what people think, anyway?'

Unfortunately, one bike ride did go wrong.

I had hailed a bike to come collect me from my workplace as usual, and as I climbed up on the bike, the Careem captain appeared shocked.

"Aap aisay baithaingi? (Is this how you will sit?)" he asked. I wasn't sitting side-saddle, I was sitting astride the bike like men do. So I said yes, how else does he think I should sit?

"Nahin waisay baithain na jaisay aurtain baithti hain (No, you should sit the way women sit)," he replied. When I told him it was dangerous to sit side-saddle, he protested and said: "Magar loug dekhtay hain na! (But people will stare!)."

Sigh. The ride went downhill from there. The captain clearly did not want to accommodate a woman on his bike, and after we reached my destination and I disembarked, he told me, "Aap next time car hail karein, bike nahi (Next time hail a car, not a bike)."

I felt discouraged by his attitude and everything he had said. I didn't feel like using the Careem bike-hailing app for a few days afterwards. I also found the driver's behaviour completely at odds with Careem's user-friendly ethos.

After discussing what I had endured with my friends, I reported him.

Everything I learned from using Careem's bike-sharing service

I learned quite a few things from this experience.

First, I realised how easily women compromise their comfort and safety.

We're so used to prioritising the comfort of others that we don't think of ourselves and undergo immense pain just to save others from anxiety (I'm looking at you, Careem captain who wanted me to sit side-saddle!). Trust me, bike rides are a lot more fun and feel amazing when you're seated comfortably with your safety gear on.

Riding a motorcycle is an exhilarating experience... when done right
Riding a motorcycle is an exhilarating experience... when done right

I also learned to always report the incident if someone violates your sense of safety. They need to know this behaviour and attitude is not welcome. When I called Careem to report my unsatisfactory experience, the representative told me that I should not feel guilty for reporting a driver and that women should report bad experiences more often. The representative said that feedback is essential to improve overall customer experience and that it also helps weed out bad drivers.

Secondly, I realised how patriarchy and oppression are stitched in our clothes. A lot of times I had trouble mounting the motorcycle because my pants wouldn't allow me to stretch my legs and move freely. I was scared I'd tear them. Other times, I'd put off going on a bike because I'd be wearing A-line shirts which were stitched without any slits. Also, it is extremely inconvenient to manage all my bags AND my dupatta while maintaining balance on a moving motorcycle.

Third, and one of my most important realisations, was that there is strength in numbers. I had to do a lot of emotional labour by myself just to be mobile. Using a bike-hailing app and sitting 'like a man' wouldn't have been so tough had it been the norm, or at least a norm in the making. As things stood, I couldn't draw moral support from anywhere but myself, and sometimes the bike captains.

It would be lovely if we had more women like me outside, doing their thing and smashing the patriarchy, one bike ride at a time.

I rank my bike-sharing experience on Careem 3 stars out of 5!