PAKISTAN

Pakistan's first women-only bus service gets mixed reviews

Pakistani commuters welcome freedom from harassment, but some point to deeper problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 6:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 6:02am
AFP

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At 7.15am on a dusty street corner in Rawalpindi, among the dozen rickety minibuses jostling for passengers, a brand-new, bright-pink vehicle stood out.

Emblazoned with the words "Ladies Transport", this was 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 sex segregation in a highly patriarchal and often misogynistic country.

Sitting on one of the minibus' four banquettes, Azra Kamal, who works at an electronics shop, welcomed the new project, named Tabeer - "fulfilment of a dream" in Urdu.

Her face half-hidden behind a black veil, she told 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 Islamabad.

Others on board described being touched by drivers, conductors and male passengers.

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, 21. But on this day she proudly wore a pink tunic, the uniform of her job as conductor on the women's bus, as she collected the 30-rupee (HK$2.25) 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 agreed.

"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.