There was a time in Kashmir when women were not encouraged to leave their homes, for the violence had made them easy targets. Now that calm is gradually returning, Kashmiri women are finding new ways to discover themselves. The sudden spurt in women Scooty riders is the latest addition to this craze, SAIMA BHAT reports.
In early 90’s when Kashmir was engulfed by violence, there was a time when females were advised to confine themselves to the four walls of their homes. Using a distorted understanding of religion in a patriarchal, feudalistic society, the diktats of moral brigades were forcibly implemented on the streets in the valley. Then there was the constant gaze of that uniformed man with a gun on the street. The spurt in violence had made women, especially young girls, easy targets. They not only felt cramped but were humiliated and attacked too.
Kashmir is gradually calming down and an uneasy, deceptive peace is taking roots, bringing a cultural shift buoyed by popular cable television networks. This societal metamorphosis has altered the perception of people in Kashmir towards the women who were denied their rights for long. In a society where females felt uneasy to come out of their homes, a good number of women, shunning the traditional taboos, are now regularly seen in the markets, rubbing shoulders with their opposite gender. Be it academics or careers, women of Kashmir are not lagging behind in any field.
These days, Scooty bikes have become a craze with women, mostly students and professionals, in Kashmir valley. Introduced by Honda Motors, a leading automobile dealer located in the heart of Srinagar in Kashmir in 2010, the bikes have become an easy purchase for women with Kashmir’s leading bank, JK Bank, offering attractive finance facility for the prospective buyers, majority of them being women. The cost of Scooty ranges from Rs 39,800 – 50,000 and one can get it with easy installments of Rs 800 per month. The main dealers of Scooty bikes in Kashmir – Rahim Motors and Kashmir Motors – claim that they sell about 120 Scooties per month. As per records, a total number of 4019 Scooties were sold in Srinagar from March 31, 2009 to August 4, 2012.
The introduction of Scooty bikes was warmly welcomed by the women. Abida Bashir, a class 11 student, was filled with excitement when her brother purchased a Scooty for her. “It is very important for a girl to be independent. I have to go for tuitions at four different places. I cannot expect my brother to accompany me every time.” Belonging to a conservative Muslim family in Srinagar, she had to seek advice of a religious scholar on whether Islam allowed a girl to ride a bike.
For Bisma, 26, a private employee, who availed J&K Bank’s loan facility, riding a Scooty was a dream which has come true. “Now I reach office on time every day. Otherwise I had to board overcrowded buses where instances of harassment and immodesty are a routine matter. It’s beyond description what happens inside these buses,” says Bisma.
Bisma purchased her Pep+ Scooty recently and says that her parents are happy now that she can travel without any hassles or harassment. But they are equally worried about her safety since a number of accidents have taken place recently. “A girl riding a Scooty was mowed down by a speeding truck. She died on the spot. Since then, every day Bisma leaves to office, I make her promise that she won’t ride above the speed of 30 kmph” says Bisma’s concerned mother.
If Scooty has brought respite from hassle-prone buses, it has its own negatives too. “You will find some girls riding at break-neck speed. Some break traffic signals and some challenge their friends for a race. Above all, the stylish helmets worn by the riders are incapable of bearing the trauma in case of accidents,” says Shaheena Khan, a Scooty trainer. She says that parents must be responsible no to let their teenage daughters ride. “I was asked to train students of class 8 and 9 on the demand of their parents”.
To tackle the risk and educate the riders on the adverse effects of harsh riding, Kashmir Motors had recently organized a seminar on road safety for two days in Srinagar’s two prominent colleges last year. The two-day seminar was attended by about 3,000 girls. “We started a creative instructional program ‘Women-on-Wheels’ to enable more and more women get independent with respect to their commuting needs” says Ufair Ajaz, Marketing Head, Kashmir Motors. “Our main target was female population who require light weight, stylish bikes which can be brought on easy finance schemes” he adds. The Scooty craze is spreading like wild fire now.
“There was a time when people used to complain about boys roaming around girls’ tuition centers. But now you will find girls on their Scooties roaming around boys’ tuition centers. And then they race against each other which has become a problem in our locality” says Muhammad Ramzan, a shopkeeper in Barzulla on city’s outskirt which is hub of coaching centers.
Like Shaheena, many trainers feel that most of the teenage girls ride Scooties without license. So far, the Srinagar traffic police has also been lenient with the new riders on roads. Haseeb-ur-Rehman, Superintendent of Police, City Traffic says that few women have been penalized for harsh riding. “At times, three women ride on one Scooty which is illegal. We have asked the government to recruit female traffic staff which will curb this menace,” he says.
Trend Setter: Female Scooty Trainer
The female Scooty trainer, Shaheena Khan, who hails from a remote village in north Kashmir’s Handwara, looks confident in her Salwaar Kameez. Wearing stylish shades with her head and face draped in a veil, she barely looks like a mother of three young children.
Shaheena and her family were settled in Faridabad, Delhi, after her marriage with Akhtar Ali Khan, a transporter, in 1996 but they shifted back to Kashmir. There have been a number of instances in her life when people used to laugh at her for what she did. “It is difficult for a woman to do a job which is not a norm in the society. But going against the tide is not a bad thing after all,” she says confidently. She believes that there are different types of stereotypes in a society but when one shows the courage to stand up against what is wrong, things do change.
Shaheena is like any other housewife when she starts her day. She prepares her children for school and drops them on her Scooty. Then she rides straight to her office, TVS Showroom where she trains girls with the help of female trainers. Shaheena is the only married staffer working at the showroom.
“It has been possible only with the help of my husband who always supported me. Actually he advised me to apply for this job after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper,” she says.
“Scooty has become a need of the day in today’s fast world. I met trainee girls who didn’t want to hear from their loud-mouthed bosses for reaching office late. But most wanted me to be their trainer because of my gender,” she says.
It has been 10 years now since Shaheena first rode a Scooty but she says she never rides above 30 kmph speed. “Today’s generation don’t pay any heed to what their elders say. Instead, they drive rashly. It is a responsibility of their parents to teach them. I don’t allow my 13-year-old son to even touch my Scooty since he is too young to ride a bike,” she says.