Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Scooty Revolution: Women learn to ride bikes on Karachi's mean streets


Whoever said riding a motorbike is easy is clearly mistaken.
I had the chance to ride a scooter in Karachi recently as part of a four-week training for women, and the experience was just as nerve-wracking as it was exciting.
Superpower Motorcycle, an automotive company, held Pakistan's First Women Motorbike Training Academy here last weekend, calling all women to 'learn to ride a Scooty'. The event organisers provided participants with the necessary equipment, including scooters and safety gear.
At a time when witnessing women riding motorcycles on Karachi's roads is a rare treat, this initiative comes as a breath of fresh air -- and timely too. After all, right across the border in India, women have been riding scooters for years; a trend further normalised by its frequent appearance in Bollywood films. Actors like Kareena Kapoor Khan in Three Idiots, Anushka Sharma in PK and Juhi Chawla in Chalk and Duster adopt the imagery of women owning the streets on scooters.

Anushka Sharma in PK and Kareena Kapoor Khan in Three Idiots riding scooters. Screengrabs.

However, this concept is almost alien in Karachi, a reason why many scooter companies don't invest in Pakistan, as they see no market for it here. A case Superpower Motorcycle aspires to reverse soon.
"We have roped in Mehwish Ekhlaque as the trainer; she is one female who has been riding a Scooty in Karachi for years," said Uzair Khan, Marketing Manager of the event.
The event aims to empower women, he added. “Women here face issues when they want to ride scooters, but we hope to change that so they don’t have to deal with those obstacles.”

Mehwish Ekhlaque ready to train women on how to ride scooters.

I decided to catch their first session on Friday and was at the location at 11.30am. Honestly, I didn't expect many women to turn up and was interested to see just how many would be enthusiastic enough to want to learn how to ride a scooter.
My first thought was: Are women in Karachi really comfortable with the idea of riding a motorbike in this city? Turns out, they are.
Upon reaching, the place looked like an empty parking space but once my eyes adjusted to the sunlight, I saw a cluster of women near a small tent-like setup. To my surprise there were daughters, sisters, mothers, brothers, friends who had gathered to learn how to ride a scooter or lend support to their partners.
I spotted the trainer in a black sleeveless jacket prepping the participants.
"I have been riding a motorbike for four years now," Mehwish told Images. "When I started, people would come up to me because they had never seen a Scooty before [as her's is imported and ordered especially from Malaysia] and to see if I was a man or a woman."
To blend in with 'motorcyclists' and not attract attention, Mehwish disclosed that she used to dress like a man. "I would wear men's clothes when riding my motorbike so that I didn't look like a woman, but the roads never scared me from venturing out on my own."

Mehwish's attire was a way to keep her gender hidden on the streets of Karachi. Photo: Mehwish Ekhlaque/Facebook

I quickly breezed through the paperwork, signed the necessary dotted lines and hopped over to join the group. First, Mehwish said, one must know how to ride a bicycle, if not, she had to learn with another team of instructors. The point of this was to see if the trainee could balance on a two-wheeler.
Almost all the participants didn’t know how to ride a bicycle, and I was so glad I did, saved me plenty of time. All I had to do was take a round of the parking lot, show the instructors I knew how to ride one and taa-daa! I was moved to the next round: riding the motorbike.
This should be fun, I thought.
I scanned for a motorbike and saw a bright, Barbie pink Scooty staring right back at me. This was it. I had to do this now. Definitely. Mind you, this Scooty isn’t the one in Urwa’s music video but the one Bipasha Basu is seen riding in ads.
Mehwish and I had an instant connection and she got on the pink Scooty to show me how it works:

I hopped on the hot pink Scooty behind Mehwish as she taught me the basics. We definitely share a connection.

Step 1: Kick the stand back and balance the bike on your feet.
Step 2: Press your left heel on the gear near the peg and place the bike on neutral.
Step 3: Turn your key in and press the ignition button.
Step 4: Balance the bike on your left foot while you place your right leg on the peg (note, there are two breaks, one near the accelerator which you can press with your hand and the other near the right peg which can be pressed with your foot).
Step 5: Press the peg near your left foot to move to 1st gear and push your left foot forward to propel the bike into motion.
Step 6: Lift the left leg and place it on the peg once you achieve balance.
Step 7: Drive keeping the speed constant.
Pssh, piece of cake. I could totally do this.
Unfortunately, not. I couldn’t balance the bike and kept accelerating too hard, unable to keep the speed constant. The poor guy behind me holding the bike was making sure I didn’t zoom ahead and crash into people or banners (which one girl did! Though nobody got hurt). Mehwish walked beside me as I drove to make sure I didn’t speed, which helped.




A few rounds later, I, literally and figuratively, broke into a sweat! I had to move the scooter on my tiptoes because I couldn't get the balance right. This was tough work and highly frustrating. After a good eight rounds I got the hang of it but was still struggling to maintain control over the motorbike. Heard the saying, “If you can’t do anything about it then let it go.”? So I may have just let it go... and the motorbike went a little out of control BUT I managed to regain control.
Thirty minutes of continuous tries and I had newfound respect for Mehwish -- to be able to ride a motorcycle that too on Karachi’s streets and in the heat is nothing short of admirable. However, the motorcyclist told me she never intended on riding motorcycles as a full-time thing.

Figuring out the controls and failing miserably till Mehwish comes to my rescue.

“I first rode a motorbike alone in 2012, otherwise I had started riding one in 2007 with my husband when he was alive. In fact, he taught me how to ride one and he’d always accompany me,” she said.
“Back then it was purely out of pleasure,” she reminisced. “After his death I was forced to work and since I had his motorcycle, I started using it to commute to work.”
Mehwish, an Accounts Officer at a local company, said that her family was supportive of her decision to ride a motorbike and be independent: “They were extremely happy that my husband had taught me how to ride a motorbike. My family and in-laws appreciated the fact that instead of taking a bus, I went on my own.”
She currently owns three motorbikes, all which she maintains herself and rarely takes to the mechanic, unless she absolutely needs to. She proudly stated that in these last four years she has never gotten into an accident and credits it to her husband teaching her road sense and safety regulations.
This short exchange changed my perspective about the event. While I was there purely for leisure, these women were there to learn, some of them with motorbikes at home which they didn’t know how to use, itching to ride them.

Left: One of the girls trying her luck on the scooter. Right: Participants and their partners help teach the other women while instrustors were occupied teaching others.

One look around was enough to make me believe that we're ready for a change: A husband-to-be lending his fiance a helping hand while she practiced riding the motorbike; mothers making videos of their daughters learning how to ride a bicycle; companions present at the event helping each other ride a bike. (Two, in fact, even attempted to teach my boss how to ride a bicycle.)
Witnessing all these eager women learning the Scooty and having their loved ones there to cheer them on felt heartwarming. It’s so important to have family’s support, voices Mehwish. They need to have such experiences to be able to stand on their own feet, whether in times of need or otherwise.
Can we expect women to take over the streets of Karachi in the near future? Mehwish and I truly hope so.

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