Bike-riding women in a hostile Dhaka

Shihab Sarkar | Published: December 12, 2015 22:34:24 | Updated: October 25, 2017 04:12:15


Young women riding bicycles or motorbikes on the roads of Dhaka are no longer a rare spectacle. One may come across these devil-may-care cyclists and bike-riders even on the busy roads. However, due to the ever-worsening rush of traffic, comprising heavy vehicles, they are often seen pushed to the footpaths, trudging along with their bikes. The whole scene carries a symbolic value: women are back to the roads with their bicycles and motorbikes after a long gap.
The spectacle once was not much strange to the metropolitan city's urban life. But at one point of time, the women riders began to disappear for apparent reasons: the chaos in the busy streets. However, a few women remained at the steering wheel of private cars daring all obstacles. One would like to compare this sight with one showing young and middle-aged women at the drivers' seat in the Western countries. In the US, women are frequently seen driving heavy buses and trucks.
The reason why young women bike-riders withdrew from the Dhaka streets, and now have begun coming back could be possibly found in the city's shambolic transport system. Most of the working ladies and girl students in Dhaka find it quite traumatic to travel by public buses to and from workplaces. Boarding a bus, finding a seat, remaining there undisturbed during travel and finally getting down from it are part of a long series of ordeals. They include jostling with male passengers, bus conductors patting on the back meaningfully, someone passing misogynic comments, and what not. Even when a woman finds herself seated at long last, a male passenger could be found pressing his body deliberately against hers; or playing footsie, passing oblique comments, etc. At times, rowdy conductors turn furious with female passengers. Why the women with a sharp sense of dignity will not shun public buses! Most of the times, the bus rides are like letting oneself go down an abyss --- filled with garbage, humiliations and vulgar male chauvinism.
The government has introduced a number of women-only local buses in the city in the last few years. To the female commuters' woes, these buses are not available throughout the day. Women passengers, especially the working ladies and students, spontaneously welcomed these buses. Of late, the number of these buses has dwindled to just a few. Run by Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC), the buses' operators refuse to ply those at the times other than office hours. Thanks to this irrational schedule, these special buses have turned out to be useless to the female passengers.
Working women and female students comprise a large section of the Dhaka commuters. But a disturbing aspect is both the rickshaw-pullers and auto-rickshaw drivers invariably charge higher fare from women.
Against this backdrop, finding young women driving bicycles and motor-bikes on Dhaka roads in increased numbers will not come as surprise.
Women in Bangladesh have had enough of their sufferings. Over the last two to three decades, they have undergone bitter social discriminations, financial exclusions and deprivations at family and community levels. The woes do not end here. As if to drive the last nail in the coffin, they became subject to all kinds of persecutions --- that included sexual and other types of violence. But lately, they have turned around.
Apart from seeing them in executive positions and previously male-dominated professions, we now find them taking lessons in karate in remote villages. Women cyclists these days are seen in many villages. Thus, the sight of desperate female bike riders in a city unfriendly to women is quite understandable.       
shihabskr@ymail.com
 

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