Pedalling for change — How cycling became a tool of liberation for Karachi’s women

Pedalling for change — How cycling became a tool of liberation for Karachi’s women

Years of hopeless browsing finally prompted Ayesha Aslam to lead instead of being led and start a girls' cycling group.
03 Jun, 2024

Public space –– a buzzword or a first-world concept? My first encounter with this word was when a viral video of a girl dancing in an all-men space made rounds on the internet. As a homebody, I struggled with what it meant and why it mattered.

Years later, when I was cycling on the streets of Karachi getting hate, harassment and negative labels, I wondered when roads became gender-biased. Free access to public space — my mind recalled those words.

A cycle isn’t biased but society is. It’s not a big deal when men do it, but switch the gender and the ensuing culture shock disrupts traffic flow — the sight of a woman exercising her agency in life gives society a meltdown and above all it’s an open call for harassment. Stay home, stay safe; any woman who misses this memo is a ‘fair target’.

I grew up fancying bicycles and borrowing them from boys. My request for one of my own was brushed aside because my mother gave into the idea that girls shouldn’t cycle.

Cycling has nothing to do with age or gender, it’s not illegal, yet it’s socially discouraged for women.

Years later, Critical Mass Karachi, a cycling group that met at designated locations and rode to planned destinations, became popular. Cyclists and non-cyclists would join their weekend morning rides being held pull ke uss par (on the other side of Karachi) in droves. It rekindled my forbidden love but not having a bike or a partner to roll with got in my way.

Searching for a group nearby revealed there weren’t many or any with women riders. Do girls not love bicycles, I wondered. Seeing myself, I doubted the probability. I wanted to join the developing cycling scene for girls, and as a hopeless fanatic would observe the streets every morning from my balcony.

“There must be one female cyclist in the area, the day I see her I’ll be the second on the streets,” I repeatedly told myself. Years of hopeless browsing finally prompted me to lead instead of being led.

I got a bike and started cycling with my brother for a criticism-free journey. I could buy a bike and I could ride one, but I couldn’t go without my 15-year-old brother — the thought pushed me to venture out alone one day. It was scary, my heart pounded, a mask hid my identity but with so many eyes on me, I felt naked. Tears rolled down my cheeks when those stares pierced through my body. Dozens of solo rides later, I morphed into an unfazed, confident biker.

I wanted more girls to taste this liberation, to explore, and to absorb the high that comes when the cool breeze hits your face. This desire set me on the journey of normalising women cycling and my quest for like-minded girls resumed. Facebook connected me with a bunch of women, but none owned a cycle. From girls to cycles, the search parameters shifted.

Eventually, a local vendor, who saw me posting on a Facebook group, reached out to me — “If you get girls onboard, I’ll take care of the cycles”. The proposition seemed like a dream come true. Excited, I floated the message in our WhatsApp group and got my first signup forming That Crazy Cyclist, our beloved girl’s cycling group. What started with two cycles quickly grew into 12 cycles within a month.

“Every ride is a new experience, I get to meet amazing women each session and own the roads in a way that is rarely possible as a woman!” said Aqsa, one of our regular riders.

When we go out for rides, claiming and enjoying our right to be on roads, my fellow riders go through the same phases; “Why was this man staring at us?”, “What did that guy say?”, and then, “The family in the car gave us two thumbs up!” They ask the same questions I once asked myself, but a few bad experiences can’t deter us.

“Riding in a new neighbourhood brings a feeling of ownership and bravery,” said Samra, a fellow rider.

From riding on roads in masculine attire to chasing mechanics draped in a chadar — doing mental math to understand how a flat tyre costs Rs30 for a man but Rs70 for me — the cost of running this group takes a toll on my mental health at times. Not to mention, the harassment and hate crimes that come with the territory.

“One therapy session costs Rs5,000, this is my sasti [cheap] therapy”, or “The S in Karachi stands for safe” — the lovely, funny banter we have during rides is what keeps my drive and our group alive. The group helped forge a community of women who uplift each other and offer support in unique ways.

We cycle for fun, we cycle for equality, and we cycle to define our place in public. The group is free to join for women of all shapes, sizes and ages. Those who can’t join us can cheer us on, tell more people about us or maybe avoid getting upset the next time they see women cycling on the streets.

From an infrastructure point of view, we still haven’t reached the point where we can use cycling for daily commutes, but this is the starting point. In the same vein, this little practice of courage has helped us desensitise people and ourselves not to feel awkward in enjoying a sport and being on our own.


Basanta Barik Jun 03, 2024 02:11pm
A bicycle can bring industrial revolution in the life of a human being! So glad to hear/read about people loving bicycles. Bicycles have power to revolutionize the world. Unfortunately, our governments do not care. May the love of bicycles never fade in your heart.
NYS Jun 03, 2024 05:09pm
Cycling is spectacular exercise to keep oneself fit , environment friendly and ride for either gender... Cycle ride by women in populas land become trauma – now Fb group will normalize this trend oh lady oh lady... Gone are the days recalling when I first learnt cycling by my dad it was bumpy experience though but miles long ....
Ehsan Jun 03, 2024 06:29pm
Women have to struggle for their rights in our male dominated primitive society
Taj Ahmad Jun 03, 2024 07:01pm
Absolutely great, let’s go for cycling, make sure wears helmet for safety and always drive side of the road.
Taj Ahmad Jun 03, 2024 07:05pm
Cycling good for health and saves on fuel, if most men’s and women’s drive out by-cycle to work by wearing helmet every day can saved thousands of rupees every day in their monthly budget.
h Jun 03, 2024 07:29pm
More power to you girls, Alhamdulillah, proud of your achievement!
Moiz Jun 04, 2024 12:17am
My mother used to bring my lunch to school on her "khansama" bicycle in the 1960s. Yes, that long ago, and the place was not metropolitan Karachi, but Risalpur in what is now KPK. Brave and adventurous women are oblivious to what-men-may-say constraints in all societies.
Al Athar Jun 04, 2024 03:09am
It’s about time Pakistani women got their fair share of cycling without any harassment. Zindabad.
Tariq Qureshi Jun 04, 2024 09:25am
Well done Team!!! It has always been my belief that the female gender has been the backbone of a successful and happy family. They contribute as much as what we menfolk would do, and hence, deserve the right to excercise their expression of freedom. No power on earth should deprive the emancipation of women particularly in our countries where this is still an endemic issue.
Roli Jun 04, 2024 02:16pm
Is cycling by girls on road such a big deal in Pakistan ?? or the writer trying to glorify such small activity ? Like India, even pakistan has a great demography which is struggling to meet their day to day requirements .. so cycling should a great mode of transport ..
Naila Asif Jun 05, 2024 12:49am
v.good effort and change