Can Karachi’s women-only pink buses drive change in Pakistan?

Harassment by men on public transport is one reason why female participation in the workforce stands at only 20%

At precisely 1.40pm, the bright pink bus packed with women leaves the depot and snakes its way through Karachi’s traffic. Two female conductors walk the aisle collecting the 50 rupee fare. This is the first women-only bus service in Pakistan’s Sindh province.

Every 20 minutes during rush hour and every hour at quieter times, six pink air-conditioned buses run along one of the city’s busiest routes from Frere Hall to Clifton Bridge.

“If this is successful, we can bring in more buses throughout the city, and eventually all of Sindh,” says Sharjeel Memon, the province’s transport minister.

Memon wants to make public transport safer and easier for women to use. “We have assessed that 50% of the commuters during rush hour are women and there is not enough space in the bus for them to ride in a dignified manner.”

Launched on 1 February, the new service is Pakistan’s second attempt to introduce public transport that protects women from harassment. The first, run as a public-private partnership in Lahore in 2012, ended after two years when the government pulled funding.

For decades, buses in Pakistan have had women-only sections. But, says Arshia Malik, 32, who takes the bus to work as a nanny in the upmarket area of Clifton, the segregation didn’t stop men “touching your behind or rubbing your shoulder” while getting off the bus. “I would love to ride on the pink buses and ride without bracing myself for an untoward experience.”

Raakhi Matan, 35, a domestic worker, says woman have to be alert on public transport at all times. Touching and lewd remarks from men are common. On one occasion, Matan says she took off her slipper to hit a perpetrator, while everyone looked at her horrified. “I’ve stopped caring [what people think] and do not feel mortified any more.”

Matan, who has a 15-minute commute, welcomes the new service. “I will feel much safer on an all-women bus.”

Dr Hadia Majid, an associate professor at Lahore University, has been researching transportation and its links to women’s participation in the labour market. She sees the pink buses as a positive step in encouraging more women into the workplace.

Poor public transport, she says, has been a contributing factor in Pakistan’s dismally low proportion of women in the labour force. In 2021, women made up 20.6% of the country’s workforce. Harassment was not the only obstacle. Inadequate transport meant women often had to take more expensive taxis or rely on lifts from relatives. “This limits the times and the places that they can work because it ties them to male kin’s timings and place of work.”

It also makes it harder for women to look further afield to find work. “So, unless there is dire need, it’s easier and preferable for women to just sit at home,” Majid says.

The pink buses are part of the city administration’s wider public transport improvement plans. The Green Line bus rapid transit (BRT), connecting Karachi’s northern suburbs with the city centre, was launched in January last year, six years after construction began. More than 12 million people have so far used the BRT, and other routes are planned.

Arooj Abbasi, who works in hospitality, is excited at the prospect of women-only buses. “Our working hours start later in the day, from 3pm and up to midnight. Many young women who want to join this line of work are deterred by the timing as they know they will not get reliable transport home at night. But if these pink buses can provide that safety, many women will come out of their homes and work.”

Others point to the wider problems. University student Hiba Hasan Fasihi, 19, is sceptical about whether a pink bus can “resolve the way men look at women” but says she will use the service. “The pink buses can be used during rush hour when there can be a lot of pushing and shoving.”


Zofeen T Ebrahim in Karachi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘This is what solidarity looks like’: an African V-Day against sexual violence
In Accra, Ghana, leading figures in the global women’s movement joined with black artists to launch Voices, an audioplay with creative listening at its core

Caroline Kimeu in Accra

23, Dec, 2022 @6:15 AM

Article image
‘We’d have died of hunger’: street kitchens feed millions in Pakistan
Lost jobs and soaring prices have pushed 5m Pakistanis to the edge. As demand soars at Ramadan, charities cannot cope

Zofeen T Ebrahim in Karachi

29, Mar, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Women are suffering silently in Pakistan – is #MeToo the answer?
Inclusiveness and an appreciation of cultural nuances are key to changing attitudes in a society where harassment is the norm

Saba Karim Khan

11, Apr, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Banks and countries pledge over $9bn to rebuild Pakistan after catastrophic floods
International funders join Pakistan PM and UN secretary general in Geneva to agree recovery plan following ‘monsoon on steroids’

Shah Meer Baloch Islamabad

10, Jan, 2023 @10:08 AM

Article image
‘God, come help us’: Pakistan families still hungry and homeless six months after floods
Forced to endure a ‘humiliating’ life in tent cities, waiting for stagnant waters to recede, villagers say they have been abandoned

Shah Meer Baloch in Dadu

08, Feb, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘Our sisters deserve better’: Afghan men quit university jobs after ban on female students
A Taliban decree against higher education for women – called a ‘betrayal of the nation’ – has led to male lecturers and student walkouts in solidarity

Hikmat Noori

04, Jan, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
'Pandemic of patriarchy': Pakistani women defy threats to hold march
Healthcare is focus of this year’s event to mark International Women’s Day, as organisers say pandemic has led to setbacks in rights

Sabrina Toppa

08, Mar, 2021 @1:56 PM

Article image
More than 5,000 people are missing in Balochistan. I want my father back | Sammi Deen Baloch
Pakistan’s security services have ‘disappeared’ Baloch people for 20 years, yet we are portrayed as terrorists. We need justice

Sammi Deen Baloch

06, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Killings of police and polio workers halt Pakistan vaccine drive
Deaths follow wave of rumours and a hoax video intended to derail final push to eradicate the disease

Lucy Lamble in Karachi

30, Apr, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘It’s not against Islam’: Pakistani trans actor tells of deep sadness over film ban
Exclusive: Alina Khan, star of award-winning Joyland, speaks out as the movie’s licence for domestic release is revoked, putting its Oscar contention in doubt

Zofeen T Ebrahim in Karachi

15, Nov, 2022 @5:00 AM