The quest of one girl to fulfil her passion saw more than 200 women and girls empowered to take to the streets of Karachi on their motorbikes and realise their dreams.
“I always wanted to ride bikes, there was this unrelenting curiosity, I’d always see guys on their motorbikes and wish that one day I’d be riding one, I’d always ask my male friends and my brothers to show me how it worked, how do you kick start it, how it functions and how it ran,” Marina recalls.
She talks about how one day, an old man, who worked as a security guard at her office and would often see her hanging around motorbikes, decided to let her try one. “It was a scooty, one of those ungeared ones, I loved it. He said ‘try this, it’s easier for girls to ride’,” she recalls.
There’s no legal restriction on women riding bikes in Pakistan. Across the country, women drive cars or even SUVs, there isn’t even a major social taboo around women riding bikes, it’s more of a security concern – cars offer better protection in the case of an accident, and increased protection from harassment.
Marina Syed, 24, was born in an Afghan family who moved to Pakistan as refugees after the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s. The only daughter among four male siblings, she was constantly surrounded by male privilege, but which instilled the belief in her that she could do what she wanted.
Coupled with doggedness and the ‘never say die attitude’ of Karachi, Marina waited for someone to set up a platform for women to learn how to ride bikes, but she decided to set one up on her own.
It wasn’t just a passion, it was also something she needed. Marina had to rely on her brothers, or Karachi’s fledgling public transport system, or even a contracted rickshaw, to take her from home to university and then to work. It was this ever present need to be independently mobile which led her to buy her first bike, albeit secretly.
“We lived in a big apartment complex, so my family didn’t know that I had secretly saved up enough money and bought myself a bike, I’d leave home in the morning on my bike, off to university then to work and then I’d roll it in and hide it behind the cars so that no one would ever find out,” confides Marina.
But it wasn’t to remain a secret for long. First came the opposition from her four brothers, but she held firm.
“My family said, oh look, what is everyone else going to say,” she said.
But then one brother gave way and decided to support Marina.
The bond between brother and sister grew. Ghazanfar presently helps Marina run the Rowdy Riders motorcycling school in a lower middle class neighbourhood of Karachi. They share the dusty ground with a local cricket team.
“When it all started, I barely had five students in the first few months, it was slow, took a while to take off, but as word spread, we started getting more and more calls from women wanting to learn how to ride motorbikes,” recalls Marina.
Marina charges Rs.10,000 ($65) per student regardless of how long it may take them to fully learn how to ride a bike and then gain the confidence of taking it out onto the streets.
“My first student was a middle-aged lady. She didn’t have any major ambitions but just wanted to learn she too had grown up around men who had motorbikes – with most, I first have to teach them to balance on a bicycle and then slowly on a scooty, and then a geared motorbike,” says Marina.