Perched proudly on their new pink motorcycles, the recruits take to the road, the latest batch of women to demolish boundaries set for them by men in Pakistan.
It is not uncommon to see women on motorcycles in Pakistan – but usually they are in the dangerous side-saddle position behind a male rider and, often, several other passengers.
A woman straddling a bike to drive it herself is another thing entirely.
However, as part of a wave of women’s empowerment movements, the government of Punjab province is running “Women on Wheels”, a campaign that has trained scores of women to ride motorbikes in the last two years while raising awareness of gender-based violence and street harassment.
The importance of the issue is underscored by recent studies showing that some 75% of Pakistani women do not participate in the labour market, mainly due to a lack of transport.
“The aim is to basically empower women for their mobility because economic independence and economic empowerment depends on mobility,” said Salman Sufi, director general of the Punjab strategic reforms unit. “So we are giving 3,000 bikes, we have trained over 3,500 women in all of Punjab, and this is going to go on until we reach a target of around 10,000 plus.”
On Sunday the latest batch of dozens of new riders set out in a “bike rally” to challenge perceptions in Lahore.
“We’re becoming ... independent,” rider Nageena Waseem said at the event, adding that their new skills will allow them to do “everything which we want. Otherwise we were dependent on another person”.
Activist Nighat Dad said the women are “reclaiming these spaces”, adding that it was a “big, big win for women today”.
“Today is a good day for us,” agreed another rider, Tallat Shaheen. “The purpose (is) to bring these girls together ...(so) that they be independent and can feel confident and can go and work alongside men.”
Around 70 women were handed keys to the motorcycles at the event held at Alhamra.
The keys were handed over by Punjab Excise Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman.
The minister announced that while the under the Women on Wheels (WoW) programme had been initiated in five districts of Punjab, they intended to expand it to all 36 districts of the province.
Lawyer and civil rights activist Hina Jillani said it was time that a positive social change regarding women came to the mainstream.
“I hope you will continue fighting,” she addressed the women in attendance.
She said that it is a wonderful initiative taken by the chief minister to ensure that women had the freedom to travel, but that he must also make sure the streets were also safe for women.
Shirkat Gah executive director Farida Shaheed said: “These roads were built for women too, and it’s high time they can travel on them. The country is not just for men and boys.”
UN Women country director Jamshed Kazi said that in a recent survey it was found that 86% of women who travelled in public transport were subjected to harassment.
The Women on Wheels programme comes at a time when UN Women, Aurat Foundation, and the Punjab government released a report discussing the general lack of public safety for women.
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