Naeem Sajjad is a happy man these days.

Since his wife, Ayesha Naeem, started riding the motorbike nearly four months ago, his life has become quite a breeze.

"I'm less irritable and more relaxed getting home from work every day. I'm not handed over the list of things to buy on my way from office, nor am I burdened with the thousand and one chores that just need to be done the moment I step inside my home; everything is done before I get home!" he says happily over the phone, from Faisalabad, where he works long hours as a clerk at the University of Agriculture.

"She uses my bike and I use the public transport, although at times I do hitch a ride with a colleague!" he adds.

Ayesha Naeem enjoys the independence that comes with owning and riding a motorcycle
Ayesha Naeem enjoys the independence that comes with owning and riding a motorcycle

As for Sajjad's wife, 35-year old Ayesha Naeem, mother of four, she is loving all the attention she gets on the road.

With her youngest, a year-and-a-half daughter tucked in a baby carrier (which she says she bought from the landa bazaar for Rs50) harnessed to her chest and her older three behind her, she surfs around town enjoying the thumbs-up and smiles she gets from passersby.

"One day an elderly man came up to me as I was about to get on my bike parked outside a shop and said he was happy that I was not dependent on anyone! He made my day," said Naeem.

She not only drops and picks her kids to and from the school and madrasah every day but also does all the groceries herself now.

But while she knows she must always wear a helmet, when it comes to her kids she was clueless about the danger she was putting them in in case of an accident. "That would never happen; I am a very careful rider," was all she had to say in her defence.

Naeem is among the several dozen in Faisalabad who enrolled themselves in the Women on Wheels (WoW) programme rolled out by the Punjab government in five cities — Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Rawalpindi.

A gleeful Asma Jahangir participates in the Women on Wheels rally in Lahore in 2016
A gleeful Asma Jahangir participates in the Women on Wheels rally in Lahore in 2016

Launched in 2015 by the Punjab chief minister's Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU), it is being carried out in collaboration with the traffic police and the district governments.

It is a way to empower women economically and provide them with a safe mode of transport, believes Salman Sufi, heading the SRU. "One important aspect through which they can prosper is if they are mobile," he tells Images.

The Global Mobility Report 2017 says transport plays a crucial role in connecting people to goods, services, social and economic advancement opportunities, and in fostering development. "The lack of personal security, or the inability to use public transport without the fear of being victimised...can substantially decrease the attractiveness of public transit," the report points out.

Harassment and public transport

Graphic designer Nimra Saleem is an avid biker who believes that harassment of female commuters occurs regardless of the type of vehicle they drive
Graphic designer Nimra Saleem is an avid biker who believes that harassment of female commuters occurs regardless of the type of vehicle they drive

Pakistan is no different where women’s mobility outside the home is severely restricted by both social norms and legitimate safety concerns. A 2014 study states that 78% of women in Karachi “experienced sexual harassment or felt harassed or uncomfortable.”

Preliminary findings from Washington DC-based Urban Institute's ongoing study of transport challenges faced by women in Lahore echoes Sufi's posit as does a DFID survey carried out in 2017 in Lahore, which states that 45% of women participants stated that provision of transport by employers would be a “very important” factor in choosing whether to take up the job.

Related: I learned to ride a motorcycle, but as a woman will I be safe on Karachi's roads?

Globally, harassment remains unrecognised and seldom discussed in public forums because of social taboos associated with it. Pakistan is no different and so when women do not react to, or report verbal or sexual harassment, it is believed that the problem does not exist.

Referring to their Lahore study, senior research associate and lead author Dr Ammar A Malik says they found that many women were unaware that there exists a formal complaint mechanism. Others, he said, simply had little faith in the police and did not believe that reporting would elicit any response from the latter.

Of the transit agency staff who were interviewed, pointed out Malik, all the male drivers and some female security staff had no training on gender-sensitive responses to incidents of sexual harassment or violence should they be reported. There is also no visible signage making riders aware of the various forms of victimisation or punishments per local laws for perpetrating harassment or violence.

Motorbikes more economical than public transport

Salman Sufi, who heads the Strategic Reforms Unit that launched Women on Wheels, holds that women's mobility is vital for their prosperity
Salman Sufi, who heads the Strategic Reforms Unit that launched Women on Wheels, holds that women's mobility is vital for their prosperity

But apart from feeling more protected, affordability is another main advantage to having your private transport, say women bikers.

"Before I learnt to ride the bike, I would take a rickshaw. The minimum fare I'd spend was Rs100 in a day; today we fill the bike for Rs500 and it lasts us a good 15 days!" says Naeem after a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.

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

In its second phase now since early 2018, the WoW programme will provide more than 3,000 customised motorcycles at subsidised rates through a balloting process. "I hope my name comes in the draw," says Naeem excitedly.

She thinks she fits well within the criteria -- of falling between the ages of 18-40, possessing a valid license. Her other documents are ready, too, which include a passport-sized photograph, a valid CNIC, Punjab domicile certificate, Matriculation certificate and a signed affidavit stating that her or her guardian's maximum income does not exceed Rs30,000.

She has been saving and is ready with not just the Rs3,000 (a non-refundable application fee that has to be submitted to the Bank of Punjab branches) and the down payment of Rs27,000.

"I think we will be able to manage the 12 installments of Rs1,856 monthly," says Naeem.

Oglers, eve-teasers and harassers beware

Nimra Saleem with her trainers at Rescue 1122 in Lahore
Nimra Saleem with her trainers at Rescue 1122 in Lahore

Naeem is lucky not to have invited any negative attention but there are women who worry the idea is too far-fetched in a society that does not allow women to leave their homes.

36-year-old single mother Safina Hussain, who decided to resume her studies after her divorce, often rides her brother's bike to the university or to drop off the kids to school. But many of her relatives have not forgiven her for that.

"They tell my mother that her daughter, a Na'at-khwan, should not be riding motorbikes!"

Quite tired of this negativity, Hussain says people should not worry that it is un-Islamic. " My riding a motorbike is not going to endanger Islam!" she adds exasperatedly.

Many women riders admit they get more than a few raised eyebrows.

24-year-old Nimra Saleem, working as a graphic designer in a software company in Lahore, continues to face a volley of "catcalls" but remains undeterred. "It does not weigh me down; it is pervasive in our society and whether you are in your private car, using public transport, you will have to face this the moment you step out of your home," she points out helplessly.

This is corroborated by Malik. "In our discussions with working women in Lahore, the majority of those traveling by private vehicle reported facing harassment and intimidation even when sitting in the comfort of their cars." The latter complained of lewd gestures, particularly when car windows are rolled down or no male relative is accompanying women drivers, he said.

"Obviously our group is not representative of all women traveling in private vehicles in Lahore, but indicates the gravity of the problem," he added.

And yet Saleem refuses to let a few dirty looks cower her down. Having tasted, and for the very first time, "this heady sense of confidence" she refuses is not throwing in the towel.

"Harassment doesn't weigh me down. Whether you are in your private car or using public transport, you will have to face it the moment you step out of your home." — Nimra Saleem, graphic designer

Fakeha Badar, 29, a government employee in Lahore, says the harassment starts "when I'm walking to the bus stop, at the bus stop and even inside the bus! I hate it."

An only sister, she was encouraged by her father and her three brothers to learn to ride. "I have to change two buses and it takes me an hour and a half to reach work." Days when she's getting late she calls Careem or Uber but finds the cab service quite expensive.

It also saves Hussain, from Faisalabad, the time and the fare when she uses her brother's bike. "It's not just about reaching the university, using the bike inside the campus, going from the admin block to the different departments or to the tuck shop, has made my life so much easier!"

For Badar, though, more than the time it saves to ride herself to the workplace, she says she is saved from the eve-teasing and unsavoury comments that come her way every day.

Unfortunately, she and Hussain both only get to ride once their brothers get home or when they can spare it as their families own only one bike. Both are desperately waiting for their own motorbike and for now both use the bus or the wagon or the rickshaw get to their respective destinations every day.

"Let's think of women motorbike riders as something positive happening in our country," says Saleem who is the first in her family who learnt to drive a car and now a motorbike and is proud since "most women can drive a car, but knowing how to ride a motorbike is unique still!"

"One day an elderly man said he was happy that I was not dependent on anyone! He made my day," says 35-year-old Ayesha Naeem

Malik agrees wholeheartedly with Saleem.

"I think it’s a good step that may help eventually change social norms regarding women’s [limited] role in public spaces, as well as change society’s traditional view that a woman’s place is within the chadar and chardevari," he says. "Women in Pakistan are already marginalised because of poorer access to educational, entertainment and job opportunities, and programs like this could help reduce barriers!" he adds.

But he is not sure if women riding motorbikes will necessarily make them feel secure.

"Some might feel even greater harassment and intimidation on the streets," he believes, but hurries to add: "I am not at all suggesting that women should not be driving motorcycles, simply describing what I think may happen."

However, taking care of women's safety inside the public transport is really not dealing with the harassment issue completely.

"Women still have to walk to transit stations and then wait at stops, where they’re the most vulnerable," points out Malik. And while the slow transformation takes place, in the interim, he says: "Law enforcement/surveillance can be strengthened to ensure women walking and waiting for transit feel safe." And that is why the Punjab government is taking on the issue by the horn and teaching the harassers a lesson.

Last year the Chief Minister's SRU, in collaboration with the Punjab Safe Cities Authority and the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), introduced the Women Safety Smart Phone Application.
With the app just a click away, a rescue team will arrive in no time to take care of the miscreant.

"They will arrive within 11 minutes!" Salman Sufi claims. 1,000 women have downloaded this app till now but little information is available about how the harasser was punished. "It's not just for bikers, but any woman, in any of the 36 districts of Punjab, who needs our help!" he says.

'Bike is not for women'

The WoW programme is also breaking many stereotypes including that of feminine fragility and that because of smaller frames, women may find it challengin to lumber the machine.

Badar does not think the machine is too heavy for her and it's just a myth.

"If a skinny guy can ride it why can't a woman?" she counters.

Asked if a scootie would be safer, she responds in the negative saying: "You have to raise your feet up in a scootie but in a bike, if you lose your balance you can quickly place your feet on the ground. She also wears an abaya and says the long gown doesn't come in her way as she hitches it up a bit before straddling the machine.