06 February 2019

She Wants Girls To Have Fun

It's hard for us to believe, perhaps, that in the early days of cycling, a woman astride two wheels was seen as provocative or even transgressive almost everywhere.

These days, it's hard to picture any major European city, and even a few American cities, without women pedaling to work, to school, or even for fun--sometimes alone, other times in the company of friends and, often, with a baby or toddler in a rear seat or trailer.

In much of the world, however, the situation for women and bicycles isn't much different from how it was in the western world in the 19th Century.  If anything, in some places, the sight of a woman on a bike can incite outrage, revulsion or even violence.

Pakistan is one of those places.  It's one of the more conservative Muslim countries, where women aren't even welcome to sit at tea stalls, congregate in parks or ride a bike for fun.  In fact, a woman in a public space without a purpose--like going to the market or school--is viewed as a threat to public morality.  It's uncommon even to see a woman riding a bike for a purpose, as straddling a seat is seen as a vulgar and sexlike act.

One woman who dares to challenge this social taboo is Zulekha Dawood.  The 26-year-old activities organizer at a community center organizes and leads rides through the streets and alleys of Karachi.  A year ago, when the weekly rides began, only a few young women participate; now as many as 30 women and girls join Dawood.

Zulekha Dawood leading a ride in Karachi.

What makes her efforts all the more remarkable is the part of the city in which the center is located, and where most of the rides go.  It's not a leafy enclave of professionals who were educated in London or New York or Toronto; rather, it's Lyari, a gritty working-class area in the southern part of Karachi.  

This illustrates a criticism that's been made of women's equality movements in Pakistan and elsewhere:  They're usually led by affluent or upper middle-class women, who have access to the education and networks that make it more possible for them to bring their visions into reality. On the other hand, the girls and women who participate in Dawood's rides face more opprobrium because their poorer and less-educated families tend to be more religiously and socially conservative.  

And, to be fair, many such families see marriage as the best hope for their daughters.   They believe that a woman who isn't "modest", or is simply "too independent", will make her less desirable to the "good" families of young men who could provide for her.

Although Dawood's rides are for the sake of riding, she understands that for participants--some of whom she herself has taught how to ride--riding a bicycle is mobility, pure and simple.  If a girl or a woman can ride just because she wants to, she is also more likely to ride to the school or job that will allow her to live a more independent life.  

Surely she understands something my favorite Woodhaven native sang in her best Queens English:  Girls just wanna have fun.  And her critics are upset that she and those who join her rides are doing just that.

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