Cycles are for kids in Pakistan. But once in a while, we do become lenient in our rule and make and sell bicycles for men, young men, old men, college men, wandering men, just men!
Then comes an anomaly. A woman wants to purchase a bicycle and ride it through the dark, narrow, uneven streets of a small city nowhere exalting to the status of a metropolitan in decades.
So one accompanies the woman on this dark venture.
The woman visits Committee Chowk in Rawalpindi and finds a dying specimen of a ladies’ bicycle, grey in colour, greyer in its condition. She takes it for a used one. But no! The shopkeeper will tell her, “Baji, ye saalon se yahan khari khari aesi ho gae hai.” (Sister, left unsold for years here, it has assumed this state) And the woman walks to the adjacent shop.
A nice ladies’ bicycle is shown but she drools over the shiny red one displayed like a Tiffany masterpiece at the centre stage. Solid frame, wide tyres, expensive leather seat, chic bell! Of course, a sports bike for men. Who doesn’t fall for that? “Baji, ladies ke liye ye cycles nahi atin.” (Sister, these models are not manufactured for women)
The woman buys that single dusty cornered model without a fancy bell or a cool bottle cage and walks out heavy-hearted.
Women in Pakistan are force-fed luxuries and liberties manufactured by men in spaces pigmented with prejudices and cultural oppression. I have been scratching the pungent branding of a culture concocted for my generation for centuries in dark temples and daunting mosques. I have been scratching for a good part of my life.
Women have “zones” in Pakistan where they can ride and not tumble through the weight of any gaze. Deluxe towns, cantts, charming housing schemes, and posh areas in metropolitans will set some space for female riders. But a middle-class residential colony in Rawalpindi won’t.
On the tenth day of cycling in my area, I was able to make a law out of my first day hypothesis.
“Out of all the males occupying the roads and streets, only a half of them stare at me.
Out of all the females occupying the roads and streets, all of them stare at me.”
We might not know but culture and its pangs seep into our minds like blood through a gauze swab. The venom we’ve been fed for the opposite sex, race, class, and religion oozes out the most bitter and strong sermons through the gaze.
So, the absolute shock in the eyes of my own sex is wellreasoned when I pedal through the streets. The wonder has a history in a blemished concoction of cults, class and colonialism formulating our culture.
Women might get as lucky as they can in a lifetime and just convince their stakeholders to let them ride a bicycle to school, college or office. But the female wanderers cannot get a license here. It’s too unseen, too risky for the cultural fabric.
The gaze I receive is mostly questioning ‘where to’ when the schools, colleges and academies are not open due to the pandemic. For a female stroller or biker, there always has to be an ‘academic to’ for her ‘from’. The fact that there’s never a ‘to’ for my ‘from’ makes all the difference.
I cannot blame my women for not cutting down the number of their glares. Their gaze tells a hundred tales. It’s not simply a case of disapproval. The eyes scorn, envy, pray and bless the women on bikes. That’s all they have, a reaction. That’s all allowed in a society branded with a culture that isn’t watered in its native soil.
So when my sex stops and stares at me, I want to believe for once that I’m not cycling alone, that its stoned irises will raise a high five one day, that its crooked face will ask for a ride.
Story written by Saba Khaliq