Instructor Marina Syed’s impromptu school grows in popularity every day
“Sometimes even my family members can’t recognise me,” chuckles Alifia, a pharmacist in her 20s, as she dusts off her jeans. “I am covered from head to toe in dirt.”
A group of around 15 girls gather every Wednesday and Thursday at the Sangam Ground near Karachi’s Mukka Chowk to learn how to ride motorcycles, bicycles and scooties.
“I shared some videos on social media in which I was performing stunts on a bike and a lot of girls reached out to me to teach them to ride as well,” says instructor Marina Syed, who started classes in April and had recently gone on a Pakistan tour on her bike.
“You need to make a V-shape with your legs,” she says, demonstrating to two of her students. Neither have any prior experience of riding a bike so they must first learn to ride a bicycle before they can be taught how to ride a motorcycle.
Lack of proper public transport
The lack of a mass transit system in Karachi and the dramatic increase in fuel prices mean travelling within the city is getting more and more expensive by the day, especially if taxi services are used.
At least 7,975 route permits have been issued to mini-bus drivers in Karachi, while 6,156 has been issues to bus drivers, according to the transport and mass transit department.
Karachi Transport Ittehad President Irshad Bukhari, however, said that only 6,500 mini-buses, buses and coaches are operational in Karachi. Even in those, women barely have space to sit. Some buses have small compartments for women but they are mostly occupied by men.
“You have to run after buses since they never stop and even then they are so crowded that you often have to dangle from them if you do manage to get on,” said one of the students. “Harassment is also rampant in these buses.”
A quest for independence
Prices of bikes are also rising at an alarming rate, threatening to price out many of the girls from ever being able to afford one. One of the girls, Shazia, bought her scooty a month ago for Rs70,000 but rates have gone up to Rs78,000 since then.
“Even middle-class people have difficulty affording one now,” said Marina. “Maybe the government can look into a scheme that helps provide bikes for women.”
But investing in their own vehicles is still worthwhile for many of the girls.
The mother of one of the students, Ishrat Jahan, says she wants her daughter to be able to get to her university classes on her own.
“I will buy her a bike once she has learned how to ride it,” she says. “She keeps missing her classes due to these unreliable van drivers.”
Some just don’t want to be dependent on others anymore. “It gets tiring running after rickshaw and van drivers or asking family members to drive us to places,” says Alfia, who hadn’t driven anything since her childhood tricycle but has learned how to ride a scooty after just three classes. “Even then I was spending nearly three quarters of my salary on transport alone.”
Shazia is just one of the two women at the school who have their own bike and she couldn’t be happier. “I saw Marina doing stunts in a TikTok video and just knew that I wanted to meet her,” she says. “I messaged her and asked her to teach me how to ride a bike. Since then I have bought my own bike and now I pick and drop my son from school as well.”
Madiha Babar, the other bike owner in the group, has found similar freedom. “Now if I want to go somewhere, whether it be the tailor, someone’s house or just for chores, I don’t need to wait for anyone. My husband is very supportive and wants me to learn,” she says.
Safety in numbers and fighting archaic mindsets
There is safety in numbers though and for many people the conveniences private transport provides do not outweigh its perils.
One of the students, Maliha, says her father would have allowed her to ride around the city on her own had Karachi not been so unsafe.
“My father says had we been in Islamabad or some other safer city then he wouldn’t have minded, but Karachi isn’t especially safe. There aren’t even any street lights where I live so I can be an easy target.”
Even Shazia finds herself at odds with the men in her family over her decision. “My brothers keep telling me to sell my bike, but I am not going to, I love being able to go places myself,” she said. “There was a time when you didn’t see many women driving cars but now you see it all the time. Hopefully, you will soon see us riding bikes too.”