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The Motorcycle Woman of Pakistan

By Zenith Irfan

03.03.20

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On a ride in Pakistan’s Naran Valley, about 400 miles north of Lahore

Courtesy of Zenith Irfan

On a ride in Pakistan’s Naran Valley, about 400 miles north of Lahore

I started riding to honor my father’s dreams. Little did I know they would help me find my own.

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Although my family is from Pakistan, they moved to the United Arab Emirates in the 1960s, so I was actually born in Sharjah, near Dubai. But when I was 12, we came to Lahore. When we first moved, it was a culture shock. Yes, I was a Pakistani in Pakistan. And Sharjah has a Muslim majority, like Pakistan. But there’s a major difference living in the two cities. People are more conservative in Lahore, and I started to have to think twice about what I wore. I had some problems.

It wasn’t just the move. When you’re 12, you’re discovering yourself. You’re beginning to understand more about life. It was at that time that I came across photographs of my father traveling in remote areas, in the mountains. He passed away from a heart attack when I was 10 months old, and my mother was pregnant with my brother, Sultan. My father was in the Pakistan Army and very conscious of his weight and something of a fitness freak, but I guess fate had other plans. 

I was very curious about who he was, and after I found the photos, that’s when I asked my mom: What did he want to do? What were his dreams and passions? And she told me that he wanted to ride all across the world on a motorcycle. He wanted to live a crazy dream as a traveler, but he couldn’t do that because in Pakistan, most of us live with families. It’s not like in the West, where as soon as you turn 18 you’re told to find a job and survive for yourself. It’s the opposite. So when my grandmother told my father, “You have to join the Army,” he said, “OK.” When she told him, “You have to get married,” he said, “OK.” All of his personal dreams were buried under social obligations. I never thought that years later I would be able to accomplish them.

Riding in the Phander Valley in 2016, I met Sidra, who called over her friends to talk with me once she realized I was a woman.

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I started riding in January 2013 because my brother and I were having problems with commuting to school—there wasn’t a proper public transportation system route, and rickshaws were charging a lot of money just for a short ride. My uncle bought us a motorcycle, and my mother told my brother he had to teach me how to ride. She never differentiated between me and Sultan. She always treated us equally. When I started learning, it never occurred to me that what I was doing was something that would make TV news. Back then, I was just doing it because I knew that my father wanted to ride, and I wanted to commute easily and independently. 

I used to take lessons from my brother three times a week, on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I still remember all the fights we had. He was encouraging, but he wanted me to perfect riding. After two weeks, I started going out on the road near where I live, and that’s when I first felt the stares and heard the catcalls. I was scared. I didn’t know how to handle it. But then I thought, I’ll just have to figure out how to fight this

Riding through the mountains always helps me feel free.

I’d been riding in Lahore for two years when I was invited by some bikers I’d met online to a rally in Cholistan, a famous desert in Pakistan. I went with my brother and met other motorcyclists and told them what I wanted to do next—to ride in the northern areas of Pakistan. I wanted to know what routes I should follow and what I should carry with me. 

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One of the bikers, who had been riding in the mountains for 15, 20 years, told me, You can’t do this. You’ll be raped. He told me I wouldn’t be able to ride for that long. That I was a woman, and I didn’t have stamina. That it wasn’t possible. He was really discouraging. Hearing this from a biker was heartbreaking for me, because the only place I was expecting a lot of support was from the biking community, and the opposite happened. 

One of the bikers, who had been riding in the mountains for 15, 20 years, told me, You can’t do this. 

But during my conversation with these bikers, there was one man who was eavesdropping. And when I came back to Lahore, he contacted me and said he wanted to help me achieve my dream. I was very suspicious in the beginning and tried to understand his motives. I was careful. 

He told me that, no, he was just a well-wisher and that he wanted to help me and my brother prepare for the trip in northern Pakistan. He started sending me advice on WhatsApp on what to carry and what YouTube videos to watch. In 2015, he came with me, my brother, and some friends on a trip to the Khunjerab Pass, which connects the borders of China and Pakistan. I went on other trips after that, both traveling solo and in a group. When I was riding, I kept a diary, and started putting it online at One Girl, Two Wheels. News channels started reporting on me, and the site got more popular.

Meeting with a member of the Kalash people in the Chitral District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Maybe 1 percent of people tell me what I’m doing isn’t something a woman does, or that I’m from the West. There are some comments on news stories about me being a bad influence on young girls. But on the opposite end, I’ve gotten thousands of messages from people who are supportive, who tell me I’m changing their opinions and points of view. I’m happy with the 99 percent. I’m OK with that. 

In the beginning, riding was all about connecting with my father and understanding Pakistan. It was a way to discover myself and where I belong. I never thought I’d be able to do this as more than just a hobby, but eventually, I want to start my own touring company in Pakistan. I also have a dream to build my own motorcycle from scratch and to open workshops where women can learn how to fix cars and motorcycles. I’ve realized I have the power to influence. That I have a responsibility.

—As told to Katherine LaGrave

>>Next: How to Plan Your First Trip to Pakistan