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Women ‘Rowdy Riders’ take on traffic and tradition in Karachi

Karachi (AFP) Revving around a dusty oval in the heart of Karachi, women on motorcycles exercise looping a series of safety cones, their helmets securing colorful headscarves.  

It is an unusual sight in the culturally conservative country, where women are normally limited to the back seats of cars or riding side-saddle on motorcycles, accompanied by a male relative. 

“Change is underway,” says Zainab Safdar, demonstrating how to mount a two-wheeler while dressed in a pink body-covering abaya.  

The 40-year-old is a teacher for the “Rowdy Riders,” a women-only group in Karachi that teaches beginners everything from fundamental bicycle balancing to high-octane gear changes and traffic maneuvering.  

Since its inception in 2017 by a small group of pioneering riders, the self-proclaimed “Rowdies” have grown to include over 1,500 housewives, students, and professionals.  

“In the past, there were misconceptions about girls riding bikes,” Safdar remarked, alluding to concerns about their ability. “Fortunately, with greater awareness, these notions have been dispelled.”  

The restricted availability of safe public transportation services has an impact on women’s workforce participation.  

In the sprawling megacity, giving women the skill and confidence to join thousands of male motorcycles in the helter-skelter of traffic opens up a new level of freedom.  

The majority of the riders are from Karachi’s middle class, yet rigid gender conventions continue to prevail. 

Shafaq Zaman, a university instructor, stated that “it took a while to get permission” from her family to begin classes to master a pedal cycle two months ago.  

Among the few dozen bikers gathered in the mid-afternoon sun, she watches with her seven-year-old daughter Aleesha as a convoy of ladies fire up their engines and rip past in a cloud of dust.  

“I am so inspired that I have my own desire for myself: to ride a hefty bike. I want to cycle across Pakistan,” Zaman, 30, said.  

Her tale isn’t rare. In Pakistan, young boys are frequently seen riding motorcycles, but many of the “Rowdies” did not learn to ride a bicycle until well into adulthood. 

“There should be a bike in every house, and usually there is, but it’s rotting because men don’t use it and women don’t know how,” said Sana Kamran, sitting confidently on a 110cc Suzuki.  

“If women can manage household responsibilities and earn a living, why can’t they ride a bike for their convenience?” wondered the 41-year-old woman.  

Motorcycles are ubiquitous in Pakistan, with most being red Honda models or cheaper Chinese copies that are thought to be capable of handling any terrain. 

Farwa Zaidi, 26, has suffered several bone fractures in her quest to conquer a bike, but the injuries are a badge of honor she wears with pride, just like the “Rowdy Riders” emblem on her jacket.  

“Here I am, standing strong,” she stated, holding her 70cc electric scooter. At four feet and six inches (137 cm) tall, Zaidi said her modest stature made it difficult to get a seat on crowded city buses.  

Learning to ride gave her a renewed sense of possibilities. “Once we master cycling, it instils a new-found confidence in our ability to conquer other challenges,” she said.  

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