Learning to motorbike as a woman in Pakistan…. a wildly conservative and patriarchal country? Say what?!
In Pakistan, women do not drive motorbikes.
You’re more likely to see a 10-year-old boy driving his mother to the shop than a woman of any age driving on her own.
Occasional exceptions exist in big metropolises—as always—but for most in the country, a woman biking is fairytale fodder. Men rule the congested streets of Pakistan; when women do venture out, their “place” is in the back seats of cars or sitting (side saddle) on the backs of bikes.
Several weeks ago, I set out on a quest to learn how to drive a motorbike in this masculine atmosphere. Pakistan might seem a strange choice of place for me to learn to motorbike… because it was.
But I like a good challenge.
Foundations of fears
Culture wasn’t my only challenge; my long-lasting fear of driving bikes was an equally large obstacle.
See, back in 2012, I did as many backpackers in Southeast Asia do: I crashed a scooter in Thailand.
I wasn’t drunk, nor driving particularly recklessly; I simply had no idea what I was doing. Red light out of nowhere, I braked too suddenly, and in the blink of an eye I was smashing and skidding across a Thai roadway in Chiang Rai.
An ambulance brought me to a hospital, a surgeon stitched up a bloodied hole on my face. Procedure complete—for a manageable $100, ambulance included—the nurse told me I could leave. Groggily, I climbed off the operating table… only to collapse as I took my first step.
My left leg wasn’t working.
After alerting the nurse to my dysfunctional limb, she cheerily brought me a wheelchair to shuttle my crippled body out of the hospital. After a couple of bedridden days, I realized I could bear a bit of weight on the leg (though I couldn’t bend it far in either direction). Broken though I was, I was caught in the throes of my first backpacking trip. Too stubborn to return to a hospital or cut my trip short for surgery’s sake, I endured three months of hobbling and hopping on one leg.
Upon returning to the US, an MRI revealed a ligament in my knee was completely torn and needed reconstruction surgery. Because I
was a stubborn idiot delayed the surgery for so long, it took my leg years to recover completely.
My scooter experience literally and figuratively scarred me.
(No) Trust in myself
Ever since, I feared driving bikes and scooters.
Tumbling, skidding, bleeding—the jarring visuals of my crash bubbled up in my mind every time my hands gripped handlebars. Few wobbly encounters on bikes in the last few years lasted for more than a few minutes before I succumbed to fear and handed the vehicle to someone else.
Riding on the backs of motorbikes wasn’t much of an issue… if the driver was competent. Fearful sobs and tears flowed one day when a friend drove me through the busy streets of Bhuj in Gujarat, India despite his barely knowing how to handle the bike.
Justified as it was, the fear was frustrating. Millions of people traverse this world on scooters and motorbikes every day; why couldn’t I? If I have the courage to travel to places like Pakistan or Bangladesh on my own, why was I still afraid to do something as simple as driving a motorbike?
It was time to conquer my fear, to have faith in myself.
September began, and so did my fourth trip to Pakistan. Touching down in Karachi, my only travel plans were:
- Explore southern Pakistan.
- Learn how to ride a motorbike.
Upon arrival, I began sending out Instagram DMs in search of people who could help me with either.
Appropriately, a “Pindi boy” nicknamed Charlie taught me the basics one evening in an undeveloped neighborhood in Karachi Defence. Shifting gears, starting, stopping; I repeated the motions over and over, lurching and stalling as I drove us in circles. Men loitering in the darkness stared wide-eyed at the spectacle of a girl driving a boy around at night.
Days later, Jibran, the brother of another friend, let me circle a dusty lot on a colleague’s bike in interior Sindh province for a few minutes. He was unconvinced I was actually able to drive a bike, and was curious to see me try.
The ante was upped significantly on my next bike encounter. My Pashtun friend Hamza lent me his bike in the notoriously conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Women rarely step outside on their own in KPK, let alone bike. Hamza and his cousin, Siraj, followed me in a truck for my halting two-hour drive from Mardan to Peshawar partially to make sure I didn’t eat gravel, partially out of a lack of trust in other drivers.
The gesture wasn’t unjustified. Boys heckled and shouted at me along the way. A Qingqi driver drove dangerously close to me, trying to talk before being shouted down by Hamza and frightened off with a pointed gun from Siraj. I wasn’t too bothered; I was too preoccupied with not dying to care much about men.
My final test: traffic. Pakistan’s terrifying rite of passage for any driver, my first proper encounter with traffic in Lahore was as harrowing as expected. In Pakistan, people drive aggressively with little care for others; predicting where they’ll go and swerving to make way is a learned art. To make the experience worse, a friend rode on the back as I zigzagged through traffic. If I went down, I’d drag him down with me… literally. Despite ungainly wobbling, several near crashes, and nervousness knowing everyone was watching the girl driving boy, we survived the experience. Somehow.
Baby steps to big steps
Basics, distances, traffic. After all these little experiments, I was ready to go for a proper ride.
(Or so I thought. That was mostly stubbornness and determination speaking, not my skills.)
For reasons unknown, a couple I met in Lahore willingly lent me their bike. And not some clunky old Honda 70cc; this 150cc Road Prince looked like… erm, a biker bike. My inability to describe the bike—yet another sign of how clueless I am.
Luminously white, solidly sturdy, with only 1,700 km on it; I was absolutely terrified to drive it. The bike accelerated faster than I was used to, was heavier than I could manage. Most of all, it was so damned new looking. I was afraid of destroying the gleaming—and costly—manifestation of Pakistani hospitality.
I couldn’t believe they were lending me their bike. After my halting first attempts driving it around Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, I’m not sure they could, either. Nevertheless, they handed me a helmet and its papers, and I drove it off into a dark Lahori night.
Knowing nothing, going everywhere
Two days later, I began my first proper bike adventure through Pakistani Punjab. From Lahore to Jhelum and Rohtas Fort; west to Kalar Kahar for Swaik Lake and Neela Wahn Waterfall; east to Katas Raj temples, north to Islamabad before heading back down south to Lahore. Some of it solo, some of it with friends.
Getting out the door on my first day took several hours and much resolve; I made constant excuses to delay my departure out of fear. Heavy traffic plagued my drive out of Lahore, and my muscles ached with nervous tension before I reached the city’s outskirts. Going faster than 50 kilometers an hour made me break out into a sweat, and I gave all vehicles a wide, wide berth.
But with every minute that passed without my dying, my confidence grew. My speedometer crept higher and higher: 80, 90, 100 kilometers per hour. My hands relaxed their vice grip on the handlebars. Traffic began to feel like a high adrenaline game, rather than impending doom.
Every day brought something I never would’ve thought possible days before.
I cruised along smooth highways in the capital. Haltingly slid down rocky mountain trails I’d be nervous traversing on foot. Spent hours swerving around barreling trucks, cars, buses, horse carts, bikes, and bodies on the infamous and congested Grand Trunk Road connecting Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Dodged herds of goats, cows, buffalo blocking my way in the countryside. Navigated ‘round beggars swarming the flashy bike in cities.
The trip spanned almost 1,000 kilometers; more if you count the day trips I did after returning to Lahore. To an experienced biker, the number is paltry at best. But to me, it represents a journey of growth, of strength, of self-confidence despite the odds.
I’m a biker girl/in a manly world
I drove up to roadside dhaba restaurants alone, eating in the men’s area despite the unwavering or patronizing stares. Dealt with mechanics amazed to see a girl asking them for bike repairs. Exercised my ability to keep calm as I stalled in bumper to bumper in standstill traffic in Lahore. Stayed upbeat despite failing to kickstart the bike at 4:30 AM in front of a village chai shop filled with miserable old men unwilling to help. Sped past groups of boys on bikes first trying to heckle me, then outpace me.
Pakistan is an undeniably challenging place to be a woman; even more so when on a bike. Learning to bike here meant knowingly exposing myself to endless scrutiny, jest, and, at times, disdain. Probing bike culture as a woman meant opening a Pandora’s box of attention.
But rather than let norms defeat me, I drove at the challenge head on. Oftentimes it was overwhelming, and I had to focus to ignore others… but then I’d drive past a girl peering at me from the back of a Qingqi or out the window of a car, and the flash of a secret smile of encouragement or excitement made me forget all of the difficulties in that moment.
Not in spite of, but because of Pakistan’s cultural challenges, I feel more empowered, confident, and liberated than I have in a long while. I faced my fear, found a literal vehicle of freedom, and joined the ranks of women pushing for their space in a man’s world. Biking is a new passion of mine, a healthy addiction to bring fresh oxygen to the beating heart of my travels.
This was my first motorbike adventure, and I can guarantee you: it won’t be my last.
Pakistan’s female biker community
A little addendum to my tale: I’m far from the first woman to bike through Pakistan. A smattering of foreign women drive through on bikes each year, but more notable are the local women challenging the notion that girls can’t ride. Their stories are far more inspiring—and difficult—than mine; I encourage you to check them out:
- Zenith Irfan is Pakistan’s famous “Motorcycle girl”. She traveled much of Pakistan solo by bike. You can follow her adventures on her Facebook page or Instagram.
- Gulafshan Tariq set a record driving through the notoriously conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan on her bike.
- Mehwish Ekhlaque is working with others to train women to ride scooters in Karachi.
- I was delighted to see women driving pink rickshaws in Chakwal, Punjab on my bike trip.
- And, of course, there are many others stepping out to break the mold in Pakistan.