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Rebels with a cause: the female biker clubs reclaiming Delhi’s public space

The Guardian – By Ariel Sophia Bardi in Delhi – Wednesday 8 March 2017

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Photo: The female biker gang in Delhi: ‘I’m a rebel.’ Photograph: Ariel Sophia Bardi

Stalled in a snarl of Delhi traffic, an auto-rickshaw driver cranes his neck to gawp.

Clad in tie-dye leggings, pot leaf earrings and a cherry-red motorcycle helmet, Leena Biswas zips her Avenger 220cc two-wheeler between two lines of drivers. At a red light, a car full of guys pulls up honking, their faces bunched into incredulous sneers.

Biswas shrugs. “I’m a rebel,” she says.

A rash of attacks in Indian cities on New Years’s Eve has reignited debates about women and public safety across the country. The targets were women out on the town – notably in Bangalore, where female revellers, massively outnumbered and some wielding stilettos in self-defence, were chased and groped by mobs of men. Many of the attackers were on motorbikes.

Within Delhi’s macho motorcycle culture, bubbly, stylish Biswas may make for an unlikely biker. But the 30-year-old doctor (who now owns three motorcycles) had an early start. At 15, she asked one of her cousins how to work the gears of his Yamaha. “He said, ‘First is down, rest is up.’ I said, ‘Dude, that’s so easy. Why don’t I give it a try?’”

What began as a hobby has now become part of a growing activist movement, built on rethinking the way women’s public safety concerns are addressed. In late November 2016, Biswas participated in a women’s motorbike ride through Delhi, organised by the human rights NGO Breakthrough India, to reclaim women’s rights on the streets.

The rally was inspired by a Breakthrough staff member Anika Verma, avid motorcyclist. The 30-year-old grew up in Bareilly, a small city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where she was “chased a lot by boys on bikes”, she says.

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Photo: Leena Biswas with one of her three motorbikes. Photograph: Ariel Sophia Bardi

Girls who were allowed by their families rode a variety of scooter – small, gear-less models known in India as “scooties” – while boys roared after them on motorcycles. “Bikes could catch up with us,” Verma says, “because the scooties were petite and slow.”

On a motorcycle, she could finally level the playing field.

“Taking the wheel is a man’s job,” says Verma. “The moment a woman does it – being on the road, riding a bike or a car or anything – is a rebellion. That’s what gives us a kick, most women drivers.”
Eve teasing

In the male-dominated capital, female loiterers are rare, female motorcyclists rarer still. Public spaces can be frighteningly bereft of other women, particularly after dark. A 2016 survey of women in Delhi found that just under half of those polled had experienced street harassment in the past year. A quarter of women had quit their jobs in order to avoid harassment, either at the workplace or during their commutes (according to Breakthrough, bus stops and train stations are reported the most unsafe); a third had stopped going out altogether.

Government-led campaigns that combat “eve teasing”, as street harassment is known throughout south Asia, have done so largely at the cost of women’s visibility and freedom of movement.

In Delhi, the front compartment of each metro train has been “ladies only” since 2010, indicated with bright, candy-pink cursive signage on each platform. “Delhi Metro understands the needs of women passengers,” the website of the Rail Corporation states, “and has reserved a car especially for lady passengers.” (Women make up about a quarter of Delhi’s metro commuters.)

Last year, Noida, a city to the east of Delhi that now adjoins the sprawling capital, introduced a fleet of several hundred salmon-pink auto rickshaws specifically for female passengers. The phone numbers of emergency services and women’s hotlines are written on each vehicle. Initial models also feature “protective grilles” – wire cages that bar intruders from reaching into the passenger seat. But in late 2016, many grilles were removed after women, pinioned in back by metal grids, reported feeling confined.

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Photo: The all-women bike rally, organised by NGO Breakthrough India

Breakthrough’s all-women bike rally tried to tackle the capital’s gender imbalances by flipping the script of the city’s safety initiatives. They partnered with the Delhi chapter of Bikerni, India’s first female motorcycle collective (in Hindi grammar, “ni” feminises masculine nouns), formed in 2011 by the owner of a motorcycle parts shop.

“The way we’ve all grown up, we’ve seen public spaces flooded with men constantly,” says Purva Khetrapal, a spokesperson for Breakthrough. “The moment women see more women on the streets, it automatically becomes safer.”

In the wake of the New Year’s Eve attacks, women have doubled down on a relentless double standard that frets over women and girls while letting men roam freely. The scale of the assaults – and a dismissive government response – prompted the largest public outcry against sexual violence since the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, in which a 23-year-old medical student was fatally gang raped on a moving bus in Delhi.

While women across the US united in protest against the incoming Trump administration on 21 January, women in multiple Indian cities marched not only against public harassment but on the “restrictions on mobility” that exist “for no better reason than fear”, according to one activist.

Segregated spaces are “bullshit”, says Leena Biswas, and do little to curb unwanted aggressions – a man once reached across a barricade in a women’s prayer line at a Hindu temple to grope her.

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Photo: Women protest in Delhi in solidarity with the Women’s march in Washington DC on 21 January. Photograph: EPA

Anuradha Narula, 43, a Delhi police officer and Bikerni member who has been motorcycling since 1978, also disapproves of “ladies” zoning. “We don’t want the extra attention,” she says. “We want the road space.”

In addition to city-wide segregation campaigns, public safety initiatives devised by the current government, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, promote increased surveillance as an anti-crime measure. Modi’s Smart City mission, an urban development scheme launched in 2015, will soon equip Indian cities with new surveillance technologies, including increased CCTV monitoring.

In 2016, the government made panic buttons and GPS tracking compulsory in all of India’s future smartphone models. “Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women?” asked Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of communications and information technology, in a statement last spring.

“You need initiatives from the government, but also from the people,” Narula says.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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