Have you ever been in a position where, after having driven somewhere and are now leaving, some random man begins to wave an arm when you start reversing? You have somehow managed to leave your house, navigate traffic and parked your car quite safely. Now, when you are leaving, someone is trying to offer help you didn’t ask for, or want in the first place. What’s the big deal, I hear you think. They are only helping. Only they aren’t. They are assuming you are so stupid that you can’t reverse a car, and under that assumption their gesture is not helpful, it is patronising. Help is when someone will quickly pull a motorcycle out of the way so you can use a parking space. Help is when someone parks behind your car and vanishes, but a driver saw them leave and will help you find them. Help is when you’re stranded on the road struggling to change a tire, and someone will come and help you loosen the lug nuts. Help is not this irritating co-opting of capability, this lazy, pitying hand waggling that is actually obstructing your view instead of helping you navigate, and eventually you have to wave them aside so you can just get on with your day.

I spent some of my weekend cycling with the excellent, inimitable Girls on Bikes for a rally. It was fabulous—just a group of women of all ages, cycling down the road, hanging out. Everyone there knew how to handle their bike, were quite safe and very aware of the traffic, and thus careful not to be disruptive. The rally wasn’t to create a rumpus, merely to gather in solidarity and reclaim the roads—after all, a girl on a bike has as much right to be out and about as anyone else. The hope is that the more people get out, the more we normalise what is really quite an ordinary act, and hopefully one day a group of cyclists won’t attract the kind of attention we did on Sunday. It was both disappointing and amusing. The former because people seemed to think it closer to a circus act—I overheard a man snigger “where are we?” to a friend –but amusing because being on a bicycle is such a sociable way to get places. You chat with motorcyclists, wave at kids, observe how the road tilts, what the trees look like. You can wave jauntily at burka-clad girls waiting at bus stops and sometimes they wave back.

The fly in the ointment was the police, though. Nobody had asked them to accompany us, nobody really wanted them around. And yet, there they were, with a few Dolphins thrown in, sirens squealing and honking. Green-shirted men kept hurrying us along, even when a fellow cyclist tumbled off her cycle. Go away! Some of us said. Your enormous truck is blocking all the traffic! Hurry up, they said, doing the same old hand wave. Keep it moving. Meanwhile, traffic began to pile up behind the huge blue truck that nobody wanted while we waited on the side of the road, well out of the way, fuming because of course now people would think that we were just a bunch of silly women mucking up the traffic, as usual.

They probably thought they too were ‘helping’, but they were getting in the way and they were thoroughly patronising, start to finish. Cycling is not dangerous, nor does it need an armed escort or a phalanx of officials holding up traffic so you can cycle past. The whole point of the exercise was to practice not being timid and to claim public space for a while. Also, we all knew how to navigate a roundabaout. If we had wanted help, we would have asked for it. If someone is repeatedly telling you to go away, your refusal to do so is not chivalry, its chauvinism— making a nuisance of yourself and then insisting “but we’re here for you”, thereby conveniently placing the onus of inconvenience and disruption on the shoulders of the person who didn’t want you around from the start. The same logic applies to other situations, starting from car-reversing and ending with anything you can imagine, because everything has already been done to women. It’s for you, not because we support you and are cheering you on, but because we are disdainful of you and find your attempts to claim independence and make way for others to follow peculiar at best and dangerous at worst. So here, let us try and control things just in case you get any ideas, let’s be condescending and belittle your efforts just in case you’re actually on to something amazing. And to add a nice flourish, let’s tell you it’s really all for your sake, to protect you from some nebulous danger out there. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s only a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com