When I was an 11-year-old, I used to ride a bike daily. As I grew older these rides became fewer until one day they just up and stopped.
I don’t remember exactly when I completely stopped riding my bike and when my bike was sold off but I remember why it happened; I had grown up and it was not proper for girls on bikes to be seen on the streets anymore.
Riding my bike in public meant I would garner attention to myself and put myself at risk.
Fast forward to over a decade from that era, and I still have the same fear.
Women riding bikes on streets leaves them exposed and makes them a target for harassment – or so I wrongly thought. However, when I read about the Girls on Bikes rally being organized by Girls at Dhabas to normalize the presence of women riding bikes on streets, I was for the first time in a long time, hopeful.
I decided to face my fears and ride a bike on the busiest streets of Lahore. Since I did not have a bike anymore, I signed up a day in advance to rent a cycle for the big day. On the day of the ride, I was nervous but excited to have not just my actual sister with me but also so many sisters in spirit.
When we started the rally, I was immediately taken aback by the sisterhood.
No one was left behind and the more experienced cyclists constantly made sure that the novice riders felt comfortable.
In the mist of the rally, I felt my own cycle was a little off and I stopped on the side of the road. Immediately a few experienced cyclists and a kind male ally stopped and helped me adjust the settings on the gears so I could have a smooth ride. And when I was totally winded more than halfway through the rally, I stopped to have a drink of water and another cyclist stopped with me and asked me if I was okay.
The feeling of knowing that all these women you had never met before have your back was amazing.
Riding on a cycle gives you a more intimate feel for the streets and makes you more aware of where you are. I was incredibly nervous about crossing the roundabouts with Lahore’s infamous traffic, especially since I had been out of practice for well over a decade. But I somehow managed it with ease and the feeling of accomplishment was pretty great.
As we made our way down Main Boulevard, the police saw a cluster of girls on bikes together and decided that we needed protection. While their gesture to stop traffic to let us pass was probably well-intentioned, it defeated the purpose of our cycling.
We wanted to normalize the presence of women on streets and the police giving us special treatment only made matters worse since it gave off the impression that women cannot navigate through traffic on their own and thus called for special help.
The gesture, though kind, probably helped further the notion that women are not competent enough to be out on their own and thus should just stay at home. This was the case throughout the rally. Police officers and traffic policemen tried to be overly protective and seemed almost annoyed with us as they constantly passed comments at how ‘slow’ we were going and how unnecessary our bike rally was. Nevertheless, we persisted.
I felt like I was seeing the streets of my city for the first time.
No longer was I navigating through these spaces confined in a car or rickshaw, but was making my own way through the roads and felt in tune with my surroundings.
As we cycled across the busy roads, people cheered us on.
Little kids waved at us and people on bikes, especially women, gave us thumbs up signs and wished us luck. It was heartwarming to see all this support. And I hoped that due to the sight of all the participants of the Girls on Bikes rally, and women on bikes slowly becoming a norm, these children would grow up thinking that it’s okay for women to be out on the streets.
However, while there were great times, there were also some not-so-great moments. There were plenty of men taking pictures of us and making videos of us without our consent. Many women were harassed as well.
As I rode my bike on M M Alam, men on motorcycles and cars came much too close to my bike and made disgusting comments. And when I did not respond, they would try to intimidate me by bringing their vehicle even more close to my bike so as to show me they were trying to knock me off my bike.
But apart from a few unsavory moments, the entire experience was amazing.
The feeling of achieving something together as a sisterhood was overwhelming. After the Girls on Bikes rally, there were a lot of women talking about how they were now considering investing in a bike.
And to be honest, after an entire decade of hesitation, so am I.