April 2, 2017 / 3:59 PM / 5 months ago

Tired of abuse, Pakistani feminists ride bikes to claim public space

Women ride bicycles while taking part in Girls on Bike rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 2, 2017.Faisal Mahmood

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Dozens of women in Pakistan took part in female-only bike races in major cities on Sunday, in an event organised to challenge male dominance of public spaces in the country.

"Our strategy is simply to be visible in public spaces," said Meher Bano of Girls at Dhabas, a feminist group which organised the races after a woman from Lahore was pushed off her bicycle by a group of men last year for not responding to catcalls.

The bike race was one of many events organised in the last few years by Girls at Dhabas - the name given to roadside restaurants in Pakistan - to promote female participation in public events, fight restrictions faced by women in public places and increase awareness.

"I drive on these roads all the time but this was maybe the first time I got to experience them while biking," said Humay Waseem, one of the riders on the 5-kilometre race around Pakistan's leafy capital Islamabad.

"I loved the feeling of freedom with the breeze in my hair."

Members of Girls at Dhabas say they are a new generation of Pakistani feminists determined to build on progress made by their predecessors.

"The women's movement is as old as Pakistan but it is not something that is really talked about or written about," said Bano.

A woman and her daughter ride bicycles as they part in Girls on Bike rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 2, 2017.Faisal Mahmood

    Over 60 percent of Pakistan's nearly 200 million people are under the age of 30 but young women in the Muslim country continue to face barriers to employment and are often made to feel uncomfortable going to male-dominated public areas, said Bano.

"It's part of a much greater narrative that leads to harassment, it leads to violence," she said.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Last September, an upcoming Pakistani fashion brand, called Do Your Own Thing, removed an advertising campaign on social media featuring a female flash mob after the women appearing in it faced online harassment.

In July, Qandeel Baloch, a social media celebrity known for her risque online posts was killed by her brother for bringing dishonour to the family. She became a feminist icon after her murder shocked the nation.

Though there is a small but vocal liberal movement in Pakistan, most noticeable in sections of the media, women who push feminist ideals often face a barrage of abuse and are portrayed as being infected with Western or un-Islamic ideals.

After the race in Islamabad on Sunday, the riders, mostly aged in their 20s, swapped stories about being gawped at or catcalled when they go out. They also talked of the need to fight growing conservatism on Pakistan's streets, saying there are fewer women out in public today than 20 years ago.

"We are letting that space go and society is getting more narrow-minded," said one of riders.

Reporting by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Susan Fenton

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