Riding side-saddle is as hazardous as it is rooted in a patriarchal mindset
Uzma fell off a skidding motorbike recently and almost broke her arms and legs, besides hurting herself badly in other places. Her son who was driving was unscathed for the simple reason that he did not fall off. Uzma fell because she was sitting sideways on the bike as all virtuous women in Pakistan must, so she slipped off as easily as water off a duck’s back when the bike skidded, which also describes the degree to which my strictures on the wisdom of sitting sideways will be heeded when next she sits on that bike. Who, after all wishes to be hooted and stared at by a public unable to bear the sight of a woman sitting in a posture it perceives as indecorous? Breaking an arm or a leg may be worse, but most people have short memories and when it comes to choosing between sense and convention they invariably choose the latter. What do you think though, isn’t it time this particular convention, a particularly idiotic one, was set aside?
If we can make laws regarding seat belts and bike helmets why do we not have a law making sitting sideways on a motorbike illegal, a practice that is responsible for so many injuries and deaths? After all, unlike some of its dimwitted neighbours, Pakistan does not prohibit women from driving cars and women drive cars with gusto here, sometimes with too much gusto. And to their great credit women now also drive rickshaws, and the country can even boast a female truck driver. And yet I have in the past ten years spotted only perhaps six women seated astride a bike, and maybe two driving bikes themselves. Otherwise almost without exception women sit sideways with no back support and nothing to hold onto except the driver of the bike himself. And if the driver happens to be that dreaded species of male, a na mahram (an unrelated man), the female passenger will not hold on to him either. If this were not precarious enough in this seventh most populous country in the world most women also balance a baby on their laps, with another child or two seated somewhere on the bike. This laden death trap then proceeds to weave through the insane city traffic and not surprisingly sheds its female passengers and whichever child might be perched on her lap at the first sign of a jolt.
Why pick up practices that have been proven not to work and discarded in other places? For example medication no longer used elsewhere? But this particular practice is especially distressing since more than anything else it indicates a disregard for the daily comfort and safety of women and children who have no other means of transport. Surely this tells us something about this society?
For centuries while horses were the principal mode of transport, women when they rode horseback sat sidesaddle. It was considered to be more modest and better for a woman even from the gynecological point of view, incredible as that sounds now. Before long though women realised that the practice which claimed to preserve their virginity failed to preserve their limbs, lives and independence, so they took to demanding greater security on horseback. A variety of adaptations were made to saddles to permit women to sit sideways with more comfort and safety. This included wider saddles with varying degrees of slope, additional pommels, different stirrups, and such things. The most practical change though was that women were eventually no longer forced to wear a conventional skirt which made riding astride impossible. They started wearing jodhpurs or breeches covered by an apron open at the back which became the new ‘riding habit’ as the dress was called. But women still found it dangerous and difficult to ride sidesaddle on horseback (as it is if you try it), and eventually towards the beginning of the last century, riding sidesaddle began to go out of favour. Women now ride astride as do men, and the sidesaddle is now only a quaint anachronism, left over from a less practical age.
None of these adaptations have been attempted in Pakistan. None. In fact, the carrier behind the passenger’s seat which could serve as something additional to hold on to is generally removed by the owner of the bike because it doesn’t look good.
Segments of this society appear to hold firmly on to a twisted concept of modesty which only indicates an obsession with sex. In other words sexual perversion and callousness is being confused with decency. The two have no resemblance whatsoever to decency and the sooner we realise this and pay some attention to the safety of a sizeable if not major chunk of our population the better for all concerned.