More skirts in the saddle
Padmaparna Ghosh, TNN | Oct 27, 2013,
“Cycling in India is not pleasurable at all, compared to the West. Here, men on motorbikes hit you inappropriately and pass lewd comments . It is hard to cycle while looking over your shoulder all the time,” says Rao. She no longer wears shorts or cycling tights, carries pepper spray and has a rear-view mirror to spot approaching vehicles.
Whether in a car, a bus, or on foot, the fear of being pawed and harassed sits quietly within every Indian woman and cycling is no different . Of course a woman in a neon helmet and riding suit on a special bike is bound to draw stares but gawping is the least of her worries.
The levels and frequency of harassment vary from city to city. Delhi roads are inhospitable for cyclists and the recent hit-and-run in which environmentalist Sunita Narain was injured early last Sunday illustrates this. “I see this particularly in Delhi,” says Vasu Primlani, a standup comic and triathlete. “SUVs force me off the road, especially when they see it is a woman. They stare, whistle, make comments like, ‘Oye kya cheez hai. Dekh taangey dikh gayi (Look you can see her legs). I have cycled all over the US, and even the grizzlies in Alaska gave me more right of way than Delhi’s men.”
Other women cyclists, too, rate Delhi lowest on the safety scale. For Satabdi Das, 30, software engineer, her move from Bangalore to Noida meant giving up her favourite sport. The daily street harassment got to her. A year and a half ago, a car rammed into her cycle near India Gate, giving her a concussion. “I haven’t been able to get my confidence back. But I don’t have the heart to sell my cycle either,” she says. Das doesn’t cycle in NCR any more but recently took her bike out to Khajuraho for a vacation.
Given the traffic hazards and daytime pollution, many women cyclists, especially in Mumbai, prefer to venture out after hours. Hema Ravi, 45, a Mumbai-based yoga teacher, goes out pedaling on her “me-time” and feels that till a certain time, arterial roads are safer than alleys. “I prefer the highway, which is signal-free , and more fun though most people point out that it isn’t safe. But I don’t go riding solo after 10 pm and if I do, then it is in a group and someone drops me home,” says Ravi.
A city’s cycling history and infrastructure also play a big role in convincing women to go riding. A study on gender and cycling by iTrans, an urban transport consultancy supported by IIT-Delhi , explains how infrastructure in Indian cities is designed for young male cyclists. It states: “Women cycling with children and shopping bags may need more width of the track and safe space at parking areas where they can unload children and bags comfortably. They would have longer acceleration times and need longer leads at green signals.” It also points out that the most common cycle in the market is custom-made for men and the cheapest ladies bicycle is more expensive than the cheapest male bicycle.
The iTrans study says that lack of dignity for cyclists and harassment are reasons why women avoid cycles. The deterrents are even more unfortunate for women from poor backgrounds because they need affordable and efficient transport. “Harassment is very real but a lot of it is also perceived,” says Anvita Arora, MD and CEO, iTrans. “When you grow up with harassment everywhere, it is hard to shed the dread. So women are naturally afraid of taking a cycle out by themselves.”
Pune’s streets, on the other hand, are kinder to women cyclists. Vidya Athreya, an ecologist, moved to the city in 1987 and was impressed by the number of women cycling. “Former municipal commissioner Praveensinh Pardesh was also a cyclist and created a lot of cycling tracks in Pune,” she recalls. Since women bikers are a common sight, no one is surprised by them. “If I am going uphill and I stick my hand out, I will get right of way,” she says.
Most cyclists feel that women need to make their presence felt on the streets. Says Rao, “The more women cycle, the more people get used to it. For instance, on Siva’s Road (Bangalore) people used to pass comments but in the past 2-3 years, people have got used to women and it is much less unpleasant.”
The ratio of women to men cyclists is low everywhere. The most common image of an Indian cyclist is of a man making deliveries or commuting to work. Women prefer public transport or walking. And while women have largely taken to running and various other fitness regimes, cycling is still not popular with them.
Atul Khatri, standup comic and member of the Mumbai cyclists group, says that it is hard to convince women to ride on streets. His wife tried it and found it so stressful coping with the harrassment on the streets that she opted for other forms of exercise.
But for most who have stuck to the sport, it is uplifting and inspiring. Divya Tate, a 44-year-old Pune architect who has been cycling for 20 years and now does long-distance , endurance riding, says that the good experiences far outweigh the bad ones. “Women cyclists are low in number all over the world,” she points out.
A lot of women cyclists get their daughters to cycle. Both Athreya and Rao have lifted their daughters to the saddle. In fact, the latter was bitten by the cycling bug while teaching her daughter. “It started off with keeping my daughter company but the sense of achievement was so great that I kept riding,” says Rao.
Women in a low-income settlement in a south Delhi colony were taught to cycle by their husbands. As in most slums around affluent localities, the women from this cluster work as domestic help. The difference was that instead of walking, they cycled to the homes they worked in. This, in turn, made them self-reliant , reduced commuting time and increased savings. Says Anvita Arora, head of iTrans, which did the study: “Women earned more as they were faster and serviced more number of houses. They could also come back home for the kids, and go back to work.”
In several states (Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu), cycles have helped keep girls in school. The Bihar government started giving free bikes to girls when it was found that the dropout rate soared when girls reached Class IX because high schools were further away and involved long travel. Preliminary results of a study by the International Growth Centre, LSE, show that these bikes have bridged the education gender gap in Bihar by 20 to 25%. The study shows that since the bicycle programme was introduced, the number of girls for every 100 boys has increased from 60 to 70.