Saher Baloch

As Pakistan readied itself to vote the next batch of politicians into power, we saw a rising need to address issues related to human rights, rights of religious minorities and steps to control extremism in the country. Voters, with the help of social media, were putting their soon to be representatives on the dock about these issues. Pakistan People’s Party had to ‘punish’ and back out support of more than 15 of its candidates after it emerged that they had sought support of an extremist religious-political group in Karachi. Most of the criticism had come from the young users of social media voting in this election.

Against this backdrop, we thought it would be great to observe the perceptions and reactions of three young, confident women from different social and political backgrounds regarding the political and social situation in the country - while also offering them an opportunity to experience what BBC journalists do as part of their work.

The idea of taking three women on bikes across Pakistan to bring about stories of so-called honour killing, unequal wages and water woes, while also filming them as they do it, was seen as an editorial challenge. Making non-journalists instrumental in our Pakistan election coverage, understandably, looked like a daunting task. But looking back at it now, BBC News Urdu on Wheels turned out a success. Supported by our production team and fronted by our presenters, the effort put in by the bikers made up for all the doubts anyone ever had about the project.

The three women we identified for the project were empowered in their own way, having taken decisions to do with their own lives. Guliafshan Tariq, Mehvish Ikhlaq and Tayyaba Tariq came from three major cities of Pakistan. Each one with an interesting story of how they ended up using their motorbike trips across the country as their way of self-expression.

Born and brought up in Karachi, Mehvish Ikhlaq now lives in Islamabad and runs her own shop. “Starting the shop was a huge step for me. After years of struggling, I struck a deal with a foreign company from where I get helmets and spare parts for bikes.” It was not all easy for her. Mehwish was married off early and was widowed at the age of 22. “The shock was huge and I was suddenly without my biggest supporter in the entire world. My husband was my biggest cheer leader. And without him, I felt totally lost. But I had to do something about the pain I felt and decided to rely on myself in order to make myself financially comfortable.”Mehvish decided to focus on her biking trips and is not keen to get married anytime soon.

Tayyaba Tariq’s family belongs to the district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, India, where she “used to paddle for fifteen kilometres every day to school”. As she moved to Pakistan with her mother to join her father in Lahore, seeing her passion for riding bikes, her father got her a 70cc bike. Her next-door neighbour in Lahore, Shoaib, introduced her to bike trips to Pakistan’s northern mountainous region. In 2015, she made her first high-altitude ride to the 5000m above sea level border between Pakistan and China at Khunjerab.

Guliafshan Tariq, a software engineer from Sargodha, is the only woman to have travelled entire Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit region on a motorbike. Her 2017 trip was funded by a private organisation and earned her a name in Pakistan’s National Book of Records.

The achievements of the three women have made them brand ambassadors with everyone, from travel groups to bikers, to government institutions, to the armed forces all vying to utilise their achievements to showcase an ‘empowered’ and self-sufficient Pakistani woman. A title, I believe, they have earned and richly deserve.

But in our series, we wanted them to speak about women who themselves had no agency to speak out, on issues such as so-called honour killing, unfair wage distribution and unrecognised workforce. Being known for bringing out a positive story about Pakistani women, they were now going to see for themselves other sides of the story.

As part of the very first leg of the trip, the three of them headed from Islamabad to Abbottabad Galyat’s Makol Village, where a 16-year-old girl was tied with steel chains and torched to death in 2016. Tayyaba told us later: “After our trip, we went back to our rooms. But I had recurring dreams about the burnt car and the image of the 16-year-old tied with chains before being torched…These are beautiful destinations for us where we usually congregate, take pictures, and then move on to make arrangements for our next trip. I had no clue this horrible incident happened here.”

Tayyaba said she had been to the place before in 2017 and took a picture near the site, but no one told her that the incident had occurred there. “It was like it happened elsewhere. No one discussed it at all.”

Echoing her, Mehvish said that the bike trips she had taken before hadn’t been “long enough to take in the vibe of the place or to know its story. We just about touch the surface and leave.”

Another part of the bikers’ trip was their visit to the bangle makers in Hyderabad, the second largest city of Sindh province, known for its bangle industry spread across the rest of the province. A lesser known fact about the bangle makers who work in various pockets in and around Hyderabad’s Liaquat Colony, is that a majority of the estimated 3,500,000 men, women and children contributing to this industry do not get equal wages and go unrecognised. So, when in 2013 a huge fire broke out inside a home where women were working, the issue was indirectly blamed on the workers for contributing to the ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’ industry.

In this general election, the home-based workers told us they were going to fight for their right to be recognised and heard. However, a law by the provincial government recognising their skills with a minimum wage was passed by the provincial assembly in 2017.

For Mehvish, the fact that they wore bangles without a concern about how these bangles are made and most importantly where they came from was not lost. Tayyaba was engrossed in discussion with one of the union workers about what women did to protect themselves from potential accidents…

For Guliafshan, the first round of the trip ended with one of the institutions, which is using her as a brand ambassador for their series, threaten her to terminate her contract with them. “I was asked not to highlight negative stories and am currently in touch with them to [make them] rethink their decision.” About the possible impact of highlighting the country’s deep-seated issues, Tayyaba said that she had decided to take up the issues during her next trip. “I think we need to speak up and discuss what is uncomfortable. If we won’t discuss the negative, it won’t yield positive results.”–BBC