Commuting has always been an issue for women around the world. A simple commute to work can lead to groping, harassment, and even assault from men, to the point where women are being held back from priceless opportunities because of the dangerous environment that perpetuates the fear of assault. It is prevalent in countries such as Pakistan, where it is reported that 85 percent of women who take buses to work have been harassed. Taking the bus is often the only choice – owning a car is not common in Pakistan.
There are, of course, companies that are trying to ease the commute for women. Start-ups have been created in order to cater to a market that has long been swarmed with cultural scorn. Careem is currently Pakistan’s largest ride-hailing app, and it takes special precautions to make sure that women feel comfortable being driven by their drivers, who are called “captains.”
For one, the company takes the time to run background checks on all of its captains. Stating such considerations may seem trivial, as background checks ought to be required for a company such as Careem, but security checks seem to happen much less often than they should.
“It was literally the first thing we did,” says Junaid Iqbal, Careem chief executive. “People understand there’s a certain amount of work that goes into the background check, so women feel safe.”
The company also leads training sessions that include how to avoid perpetuating sexual harassment. For many men, it is their first lesson on how to avoid creating incidents.
“Don’t look at a woman over and over again in your rearview mirror,” says Muhammad Wahaj, an instructor for the company. “Don’t make comments about the way they dress. Don’t ask them if they’re married.”
While the company hadn’t originally planned to market to a female demographic, the company’s customer base is made up of about 70 percent women. Some women take great benefit from the company, finding freedom in traveling where they had not before.
“I never used public transport,” says Huda Baig, who is 27 and works in the tech industry. “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, with the presence of Careem, Baig is able to take more liberties, such as going to the gym.
“I feel more confident in public,” she says. “Otherwise, I was never comfortable going anywhere alone.”
While Careem has been doing a service of good in its mission to help women gain newfound freedom, it seems almost niche in the way it’s being done. A ride with Careem costs about 160 rupees ($1.50) while buses are still only 20 or 30 rupees, about 20 or 30 cents. Depending on the demand and distance, a ride one way on Careem could easily be three to four times more than a bus fare round trip.
Will there ever be a solution that completely encompasses women in every class? The simple answer is possibly negative.
“There’s a strong anti-poor bias in planning and policy,” says Arif Hasan, an architect and social researcher. “Our society is in flux… Traditional values and contemporary work conditions are at odds. Society has changed but doesn’t realize it.”
Until Pakistani society as a whole can learn to consolidate its economic classes (or at the very least, until society becomes less stringent with them), there will always be a sliver of women unable to escape the possibility of being groped, catcalled, or assaulted. Leaving these women behind is a crime against humanity.
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