These Pink Taxis Have Just One Rule: No Men Allowed

Photo courtesy of Zar Aslam.
When you think of issues women face in the workplace, you probably think of the wage gap, sexist male bosses, or pitiful maternity leave. Women in Pakistan face a much more basic problem: physically getting to work. Sexual harassment on public transport is epidemic — in the Pakistani city of Karachi, 85% of working women said they’d been harassed on their commutes by drivers and fellow passengers, according to one recent study — but many women don’t have a safe, affordable alternative. “In Pakistan, traveling for women is a nightmare because there isn't enough public transportation. Women are not socially and culturally allowed to ride bikes, and cars are too expensive for most middle-class women,” says Zar Aslam, a Pakistani entrepreneur. So, she set out to change that by launching the Pink Rickshaw Project, a fleet of women-owned, women-driven rickshaws — no men allowed.

In Pakistan, traveling for women is a nightmare.

Her service will fill a growing need: According to a recent study, only a fifth of the female population in Pakistan is part of the work force (a lack of safe and secure transportation is cited as a major reason why) — but that’s changing: the number of working women is up 5% in the past 10 years and continuing to grow. All those women need a way to get to work. “I thought we could just take regular rickshaws, color them pink, and be done with it,” Aslam says. But, she realized she'd have to make them a little nicer to appeal to middle-class clients. “In order to break down cultural and social barriers, we had to come up with something that is cute and looks like a personal car. And, when we put it on the road, it became the hottest thing!” Aslam’s pink rickshaws are similar in design to the standard auto rickshaw (a three-wheeled motorcycle with a bench in the back) with the added security measures of being enclosed on four sides with windows, a lock securing the door, and a fan for the driver’s seat. Aslam’s project has two major goals. The first is to build a safe and convenient transportation service for women. The second is to financially empower working-class women by providing a revenue stream in the form of these rickshaws. Women will be able to own these rickshaws and either hire other women drivers or drive them themselves. “We will be training other women to drive the rickshaws and also providing technical training. We want these women to become entrepreneurs, so they are providing service within their own community,” says Aslam.

Once we put them on the road, they became the hottest thing.

Aslam piloted the project in March of 2015, and a new fleet of pink rickshaws are going to be hitting the road this October or November. Right now, they’re vetting applications from female drivers. “The most weight [is] given to applicants who want to change their lives. We are going to look at the whole package, but the passion to improve their lives is important,” Aslam explains. The Pink Rickshaw Project is also raising money, with enough right now for about five rickshaws, and plans to get as many as 20. Without any major government funding or grants, they are mainly relying on crowdfunding, donors, and dipping into personal resources. Women-only transportation services aren’t unique in South Asia. Ladies-only train compartments have existed in India for ages, and the first car has been reserved exclusively for women in each line of the Delhi Metro since 2010. In January, Nepal launched a women’s-only bus service. There’s also She Taxi in Southern India, a cab service for women travelers that's operated by women entrepreneurs. In the United States, ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have been trying to increase the number of female drivers, and a new app called SheRides in New York City aims to serve women who may feel uncomfortable being driven by men. In Pakistan, women-only transportation services have been launched before, but without much success. “The government started women-only buses in Pakistan a few years ago, but it took too long and was poorly done, and people feel that it failed even though it was well-intended," Aslam says.

Women-only transportation services have been launched before, but without much success.

In Punjab, a large province in Pakistan, the government launched the women-only "pink bus" in 2010. But male passengers totally ignored the rules and utilized the bus — and the administration was unable to control them. In 2012, an express metro bus for women launched in Punjab and has been more successful, but the service is quite expensive for lower- and middle-class women. In 2014, in another large Pakistani city, non-profit organization Naya Jeevan attempted to launch a women-only bus service, "Busanti." “The entire team, including men, dressed up in burqas and ventured out on the streets in order to really understand the dilemma faced by the urban poor women when it came to public transportation. This exercise gave us empathy as we discovered firsthand what women go through,” explained Asher Hasan, Founder and CEO of Naya Jeevan. Busanti aimed to combine public health services with a safe transportation system, exposing women to health awareness and education via multi-media platforms. Unfortunately, a lack of funding has kept the project on hold. Despite the obstacles other women-only transportation services in Pakistan have faced, The Pink Rickshaw project seems to be making strides. Aslam says the initial plan was to only launch locally within Lahore, but she has been getting requests from women all over the country. “This one excited woman from outside Lahore contacted me," she explains. "She’s a nurse and can’t afford her own car and wants to use the pink rickshaw as an extra source of income.” The project has even shifted the mind of the pink rickshaw manufacturer himself, a conservative Pakistani man. “The funny thing is that he kept telling me, 'This is never going to work,'” Aslam says. “But once he saw the demand, our manufacturer became an advocate for women’s transportation by default!”

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