Reinventing Transportation

By Tanveer ul Islam

Women in Chakwal have taken a daring step by driving auto rickshaws that has left locals in awe who believe that driving is a profession reserved only for men and the other sex is not cut for it. They think women and girls should stay home even for economic activities, doing tailor work, running a beauty salon or a tuition centre, which does not demand stepping out of the house.

This is 2016, and the time for Chakwal women being helpless is up. More stunned are the male rickshaw drivers who ply the roads in thousands in the congested city, driving often recklessly and, at times, dealing with women commuters rudely. “Look! Here goes this driver, now they will compete with us on the roads,” they remark sarcastically to each other when these girls zoom past driving their pink and blue three wheelers. These reflect their chauvinism and, perhaps, fear of losing women commuters.

Who are these trailblazers joining the profession considered rough and tough even by men? Three young women belonging to poor economic backgrounds!

They turned to driving auto rickshaws after finding no other opportunity to support their families in a sustainable way. Left out by the formal and vocational education systems, girls like these have no options but to stay home depending upon the meagre incomes of male family members. Or get involved in home-based vocations with little market demand, again failing to achieve economic independence.

Take for instance the story of Kiran Shehzadi, the daughter of a mason who lives in Mohra Kore Chisham, a village nearby Chakwal. Due to poverty, she could not attend school beyond grade eight. Until recently she used to do tailor work at home but found the income was not steady to help her aging father who works not so regularly due to medical conditions. Encouraged by her mother, the 22-year-old decided to come out and enrol for the Pink Rickshaw Initiative, a project by Plan – International Pakistan for which financial assistance is being offered by Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Almost similar circumstances pushed Najam un Nisa to take the wheel. The 27-year-old woman runs a part time beauty parlour in her village Bauchal Khurd, located some 50 kilometres south of Chakwal in the Salt Range area. Najam too found her income from tailoring inadequate to look after her three sisters and a brother who is disabled and unable to work.

“In areas like Chakwal, women have little income generating opportunities, while the traditional vocations don’t pay them off because of mobility issues. To address this we are piloting this innovative project and if successful we will scale it up, encouraging more women to take the wheel for economic independence,” tells Azeem Faisal, the project manager at Plan. Also, parents find it more reliable to send their girls to school in women driven transportation, as otherwise they fear harassment and cultural objections associated with going out, Faisal further explains.

The idea of women rickshaw drivers is not new to Pakistan. Earlier, such initiatives were taken in big cities like Islamabad and Lahore, but bringing the idea to inner districts like Chakwal is a new challenge that the development community has chosen. Gender biases are usually deep rooted in rural areas and people resist solutions affecting women, no matter how well intentioned they are.

A more daring step is the selection of Bali Rani, a 24-year-old “nomad divorcee”. For around eight years she used to earn her living by begging on the streets of Chakwal. “People would condemn me and would advise that I should work, but I had no idea what to do,” she tells. A local journalist turned social activist, Younas Awan helped Plan identify Bali, hoping that the opportunity might change the destiny of her family and community living below the poverty line for centuries.

“Nomads are treated as social outcasts; they are not just poor but have an entirely different life style unacceptable to the society as a whole. Their men are addicts and don’t work while women beg and rear children,” tells Awan, who runs three shanty schools to educate the nomad children. “I want them to join mainstream life somehow,” said Awan.

It is just two months from now that the three women completed their training and came on the roads providing services mainly to girls and women commuters. Selectively, they offer rides to male passengers, depending on their gut feelings to avoid the ‘bad guys’. Though they earn in small chunks at the moment compared to male rickshaw drivers, they are hopeful to do a profitable business once schools open after summer vacations. “Women teachers and parents are in contact and have promised to avail the service,” all the three of them reported. Initially, two of them had some minor accidents, but they did not give up, as they understood that it was the beginning of a better life with some initial challenges.

As of social acceptance, there are two different reactions towards these women rickshaw drivers. Men rickshaw drivers seem jealous and consider them business rivals. They laugh and say unkind things to them especially targeting the nomad woman. And when they see pink rickshaws caught in traffic, they stop to stare at them as if they were some aliens in the town. General public, on the other hand, appreciate and encourage the women for the initiative they have taken.

Kiran, narrating an incident said that once, an elderly man came out of his car when she was waiting at a traffic signal. The man appreciated her and then presented her with a bill of Rs500 as a token of encouragement. She recalled other incidents where a biker and passersby offered help to change a punctured wheel or clear debris from the plug.

Najam, who operates in a highly conservative area reports similar happenings. “Once, when my rickshaw slipped into a roadside ditch, passersby and nearby shopkeepers gathered to pull it out. Almost the whole village gathered at the scene to help me out,” she said. Family members and relatives also presented her with cash and words of encouragement.

Bali too received thousands of rupees as encouragement from Awan’s friends living home and abroad.

The bottom line is that women are confident and continue to drive and dream to make a decent living of it.

They consider the social environment largely supportive and think that the little hostility they face at the hands of rickshaw drivers would gradually disappear. “When mobile phones came, people criticised their usage by girls, now almost every other girl keeps two, but nobody bothers,” explains Kiran, pointing towards the patterns of social change.

Now it is up to Plan and its partner organisations to continue creating an enabling environment for these trailblazers. There is a rickshaw union, traffic police, local administration, and influential figures, all have a crucial role to play at this stage.

The writer is a freelancer.

Courtesy THE NEWS