RAWALPINDI: At 7:15 am on a dusty street corner in Rawalpindi, among the dozen rickety minibuses jostling for passengers, a brand-new, bright pink vehicle stands out.
Emblazoned with the words ‘Ladies Transport’, this is Pakistan’s first commuter bus solely for women, aimed at those sick of wandering hands and unwanted attention on regular services.
Some see it as a welcome respite, but detractors warn it is reinforcing gender segregation in a highly patriarchal and often misogynistic country.
Sat on one of the minibus’s four banquette seats, Azra Kamal, who works at an electronics shop, welcomes the new project, named “Tabeer” — “fulfilment of a dream” in Urdu.
Her face half-hidden behind a black veil, she tells of obscene comments and other inappropriate gestures she suffered on mixed transport.
“I have a long journey to work and when I get there it’s often only me left on board. Sometimes the driver will take advantage to give me his phone number and ask for mine,” she said during the 20-odd kilometre ride to her destination in the capital Islamabad.
Others on board described being touched by drivers, conductors and male passengers.
To add to this harassment, the tiny minibuses that ply the roads of the Pakistani capital and its twin city Rawalpindi often have only a few seats, sometimes with only one out of a dozen reserved for women.
“I used to work in a hospital. Often there would be no space on the bus and I would get told off for being late,” said Sana.
Today the 21-year-old proudly wears a pink tunic, the uniform of her job as conductor on the women’s bus, as she collects the 30-rupee (30-US cent) fare.
But the new service has not impressed everyone in a country where the forces of conservatism are seen to be growing in strength.
In a blog post for one of Pakistan’s leading English-language newspapers, journalist Erum Shaikh called the project a “complete sham”.
“The mere fact that the authorities thought it appropriate to introduce something like this should actually offend women and yet we sit there smile, look pretty and let the big, tough, muscular men build walls around us to ‘protect’ us,” she wrote. On board the bus, bank worker Misbah agrees.
“I really appreciate the service but we must tackle the root of the problem and make people take harassment seriously,” she said.
But the man behind the project, Ali Naqi Hamdani, says it is empowering women in a society where many are not permitted to leave the house without male accompaniment. “The women here are willing to go out to work, they’re willing to go out for education purposes but they don’t have such a conducive situation where they can feel secure in public transport,” he said. “So it was very important that you provide them an environment where they step out of their homes, they feel secure before they reach their universities or their offices so they are encouraged to come out.” The Tabeer project has been running for three weeks, with 12 vehicles in the capital, and is hoping to expand to other cities if there is enough demand. Sana is already dreaming of moving on to drive the bus — for a shortage of female drivers means that currently the women-only bus has a man behind the wheel.
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