“It’s my right. We can go anywhere. Now I don’t have to wait for a bus. I know people made dirty remarks when I started cycling, but I paid no attention", said Jameela - an excerpt taken from the inspirational narrative ‘Where There is a Wheel’ written by P. Sainath in his book ‘Everyone Loves a Good Drought’ (1996). It highlights how a simple act of learning to ride a bicycle can bring about a considerable change in the lives of women and empower them.
Jameela is a young girl in her early twenties who had taken to bicycling as a symbol of independence, freedom and mobility in the heart of rural Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. Learning how to cycle, gave a sense of confidence to women and most importantly, it reduced their dependence on men. Cycling swept across almost all the villages; Kilakuruchi was another among the few. A women could take-up a four kilometres stretch on her cycle to collect water, sometimes even with her children. Even carting provisions from one place to another could be done on their own. But women had to put up with vicious attacks on their character when this began. People made filthy remarks as cycling became the chosen medium for almost every women. As I read Sainath’s motivational piece, there was something which didn’t fail to strike me – ‘filthy remarks!’
Women have already begun hammering at the shackles that hold them. Today, they have taken up the wheel. But society (typically the rural one) still restricts women from the wheel which in turn bars her from development. Women are often only associated with household work and they don’t really need to drive a car for that. A woman is meant to be within the four walls of her home, generally suppressing herself from any other interests that she might have.
She is believed to be an epitome of ‘sacrifice’. It is usually considered that the husband would drive his wife around whenever needed. Moreover, a common Indian household has only one car per family. So the husband, most often the only working member in the family, gets to drive it. A woman who chooses to ride or drive a vehicle which is typically considered a ‘men’s only’ job is always subjected to ‘filthy remarks’. She has to put up with vicious remarks on her character as she is believed to have crossed her limits.
Mindsets need a change. Women need an endeavour. A Delhi-based ‘Women on Wheels’ programme empowers women to become professional drivers to enable them to earn their livelihoods with dignity. The programme also enhances their awareness on rights and enables them to become independent and confident individuals in charge of their lives. The Women on Wheels programme that had started in 2008 in Delhi, also expanded to Jaipur, Indore, Kolkata and other states.
Wheel is a symbol of evolution and development. No city in the world can claim to be smart and sustainable if half of its population is barred from the wheel. P. Sainath aptly entitles his narrative as ‘Where There is a Wheel’ hinting that where there is a will and determination, there is a way. It is high time we reclaim the roads for gender equality.
Times have changed, yet attitude towards women have not yet changed. Most women in India are not raised to drive or ride. It has always been the role that men were expected to fill. But times are changing now and women today are taking the wheel. Today, with an aim to increase women's mobility and employment, many programmes such as cab driving, motorbike training, bike rally, cycling, etc. are and should be initiated by government and non-government organizations as part of a social movement for all and sundry. Such initiatives not only empower women but also provide job opportunities for women while providing safe transportation options for women commuting.
Though women have progressed in a number of spheres, yet looking from a wider perspective, the situation still remains grim. The benefits have hardly reached the intended beneficiary – the target audience. We need the change to the nook and corner of the country. If each one of us join hands in every possible way that we can, we can usher in the much needed change, gradually.
Let us look forward to a vibrant India, where every woman feels independent, takes her own decisions, is free to choose any vocation of her liking and above all, can walk and commute around freely, without hearing to any ‘filthy remarks’. Irrespective of the gender, a child should be allowed to grow up freely, take on the wheel and sway along with the waves of development. Suppression may hinder the development of the child and in turn, the future citizens of our country. “To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, the nation moves”, says Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.