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Karachi Journal: Pakistani Women Gain New Mobility With Transportation Apps

Careem and a smattering of other app-based transportation services are working to remedy this, although for many women, their cost is out of reach. Buses cost just 10 to 20 rupees a ride, or about 10 to 20 cents, while hailing a ride through an app could cost $ 1.50 or more, depending on distance and demand.

Class lines here dictate how women get around. Those with the means have traditionally relied on their families’ drivers or driven their own cars. Lower- and middle-class women have been dependent on mass transit, with buses or minibuses sometimes arranged by employers or schools.

Regardless of income, though, stepping into the street alone gives Pakistani women pause. A woman walking by herself draws stares, or worse. And Karachi is a city made for cars, not people, with sidewalks in poor shape and always dominated by men.


Huda Baig while taking a Careem ride to the gym. Credit Danial Shah for The New York Times

Careem wasn’t initially marketed toward women in Pakistan, but they make up 70 percent of its customers, the company says. It spread to Pakistan just over a year ago after successes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Every day across the country, dozens of training sessions like Mr. Wahaj’s prepare a new batch of drivers — or “captains,” as the company calls them — for whom these sexual harassment lessons are generally a first.

The limited transportation options used to be confining for women like Huda Baig, 27, who lives in Karachi and works in the tech industry. “I never used public transport,” she said. “Only rickshaws or taxis when I had to. But it’s an intimidating process — you don’t know them, you have to haggle. Otherwise, I relied on my friends or family for rides.”

Now a regular Careem user, Ms. Baig uses it to get to work, meet with friends or head to the gym. The app gives her a freedom she had never experienced before. “I feel more confident in public,” she said. “Otherwise, I was never comfortable going anywhere alone.”

Javaid Iqbal, the chief executive of Careem in Pakistan, says the company has been able to reassure women by making a priority of background checks on prospective drivers.

“It was literally the first thing we did,” he said. “Luckily, that message has been communicated. People understand there’s a certain amount of work that goes into the background check, so women feel safe.”

As recently as 2012, kidnappings and muggings were commonplace in Karachi, but an aggressive military campaign against terrorism and crime has restored a relative sense of calm and safety. Still, curtailing harassment is another hurdle entirely.

For Nargiz, 30, an hourlong bus ride takes her home from the bedding factory where she works. It’s 9 p.m. by the time she reaches her northwest Karachi slum, neatly folding the black abaya she wears for the commute; she is Christian and would not otherwise wear one.

Nargiz, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of repercussions for her job, said she wore the abaya only to go to work, so that men don’t bother her on the bus, and she takes it off as soon as she gets there.


Zoya Anwer, a 24-year-old journalist from Karachi, regularly uses Bykea to commute in the city. Credit Danial Shah for The New York Times

One recent morning, Nargiz climbed onto a packed private bus, covered in plastic roses and hand-painted slogans. This particular one had a slogan reading, “GOOD LUCK.”

The women’s section, an area of four seats and a bench by the driver, was separated from the men’s by a metal grill, but was full — and full of men. Nargiz pushed against them during the bumpy ride. Wary of the groping she sometimes faces on the bus, she tightened her scarf around her face and clutched her purse.

Another ride-sharing start-up, Bykea, is based on motorcycles and is trying to serve less-well-off commuters like Nargiz. It is cheaper than Careem.

On Bykea, Nargiz’s commute each way would cost 100 rupees, or less than $ 1, compared with 160 rupees, about $ 1.50, on Careem.

Bykea is rapidly gaining a following in Karachi, especially among working-class men. But its chief executive, Rafiq Malik, admitted that not many women feel comfortable using the app, saying that cultural norms, not safety concerns, are at play.

Nargiz acknowledged that she could not bring herself to jump onto the back of a stranger’s motorcycle, even sidesaddle, the norm for women here.

Careem and Bykea have both spread rapidly, striving to fill a vacuum in transportation that holds back many potential female workers and, more broadly, economic productivity. But poorer women largely elude them; Nargiz said she and her factory co-workers had never even heard of the apps.

Arif Hasan, an architect and social researcher, does not have much faith in a solution for working-class women anytime soon.

“There’s a strong anti-poor bias in planning and policy,” said Mr. Hasan, a board member of the Karachi Infrastructure Development Committee, a group struggling to improve city infrastructure and bring a fast-rail system.

“Our society is in flux,” he added. “Traditional values and contemporary work conditions are at odds. Society has changed but doesn’t realize it.”

Source: NYT > World

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