The quest of one girl to fulfil her passion saw more than 200 women and girls empowered to take to the streets of Karachi on their motorbikes and realise their dreams.

"I always wanted to ride bikes, there was this unrelenting curiosity, I'd always see guys on their motorbikes and wish that one day I'd be riding one, I'd always ask my male friends and my brothers to show me how it worked, how do you kick start it, how it functions and how it ran," Marina recalls.

She talks about how one day, an old man, who worked as a security guard at her office and would often see her hanging around motorbikes, decided to let her try one. “It was a scooty, one of those ungeared ones, I loved it. He said ‘try this, it's easier for girls to ride’,” she recalls. 

There's no legal restriction on women riding bikes in Pakistan. Across the country, women drive cars or even SUVs, there isn't even a major social taboo around women riding bikes, it's more of a security concern – cars offer better protection in the case of an accident, and increased protection from harassment. 

Marina Syed, 24, was born in an Afghan family who moved to Pakistan as refugees after the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s. The only daughter among four male siblings, she was constantly surrounded by male privilege, but which instilled the belief in her that she could do what she wanted. 

Coupled with doggedness and the 'never say die attitude' of Karachi, Marina waited for someone to set up a platform for women to learn how to ride bikes, but she decided to set one up on her own.

She's fallen a few times, but says, that it has only made her stronger.
She's fallen a few times, but says, that it has only made her stronger. (TRTWorld)

It wasn't just a passion, it was also something she needed. Marina had to rely on her brothers, or Karachi's fledgling public transport system, or even a contracted rickshaw, to take her from home to university and then to work. It was this ever present need to be independently mobile which led her to buy her first bike, albeit secretly.

"We lived in a big apartment complex, so my family didn't know that I had secretly saved up enough money and bought myself a bike, I'd leave home in the morning on my bike, off to university then to work and then I'd roll it in and hide it behind the cars so that no one would ever find out," confides Marina.

But it wasn’t to remain a secret for long. First came the opposition from her four brothers, but she held firm.

"My family said, oh look, what is everyone else going to say," she said.  

But then one brother gave way and decided to support Marina.

The bond between brother and sister grew. Ghazanfar presently helps Marina run the Rowdy Riders motorcycling school in a lower middle class neighbourhood of Karachi. They share the dusty ground with a local cricket team.

"When it all started, I barely had five students in the first few months, it was slow, took a while to take off, but as word spread, we started getting more and more calls from women wanting to learn how to ride motorbikes," recalls Marina.

Marina charges Rs.10,000 ($65) per student regardless of how long it may take them to fully learn how to ride a bike and then gain the confidence of taking it out onto the streets.

"My first student was a middle-aged lady. She didn't have any major ambitions but just wanted to learn she too had grown up around men who had motorbikes – with most, I first have to teach them to balance on a bicycle and then slowly on a scooty, and then a geared motorbike," says Marina.

Marina's first student
Marina's first student (TRTWorld)

"I don't believe there is any major social taboo in society or any sort of religious restriction that women cannot ride motorbikes," Marina says, "but I do think there is a concern with women suffering harassment." 

"I'll never forget one of my students, she arrived with her husband in full niqab, her husband wanted her to learn how to ride a motorbike so that it would enable her to be more independent and not always rely on him to go around and do simple chores. Once she became proficient on the bike, she sent me a photograph – it made me so happy," Marina says.

Marina was pleasantly surprised to see a lady in niqab looking forward to riding motorbikes
Marina was pleasantly surprised to see a lady in niqab looking forward to riding motorbikes (TRTWorld)

It's also a question of affordability, the price of a motorbike in Pakistan is a mere fraction of what cars cost, and then it's about fuel costs, too. Economic pressures are also pushing women to be more independent – the concept of a sole breadwinner is fast dissipating.  

Once fully proficient, the students don't really leave. Rowdy Riders has become a sorority of sorts – many still drop by towards the end of the weekly riding school on Thursdays. They often go on weekend rides across the city, and get invited to events. The camaraderie that often brings them together has turned into a biker club of sorts. 

Rowdy Riders on one of their cross city rallies
Rowdy Riders on one of their cross city rallies (TRTWorld)

Shagufta Rao, a housewife and a tailor, was one of Marina's first students. For Shagufta, the school run was the biggest problem. It would take a good two hours for her kids to come back home.

Shagufta on her bike.
Shagufta on her bike. (TRTWorld)

"I've never really had a bad experience while riding my motorbike, but I'll never forget this one time when while I was riding my bike and I saw this old man crossing the street, but when he saw me he just stopped out of pure shock and surprise, which meant I crashed into him, poor man, I never saw him after that, but he was fine," laughs Shagufta.

"My life has greatly improved, I often have the neighbourhood ladies knocking on my door, asking me to take them around for chores, it's so much fun, and people in my locality also respect me more now," says Shagufta. 


"When I became more confident on the bike, I started doing tricks and easy stunts," says Marina.

Then, as it usually is with millennials, someone brought out a camera, made a few videos and then, just like that, Marina became an overnight sensation: the girl who rides bikes and does stunts.

It was then a chance encounter which would see Marina become Pakistan's first action movie star, her first film was set to be released in cinemas across Pakistan, but then Covid-19’s second wave hit the country. The director has now postponed the release.

It’s all set against a rather dark backdrop. A brutal gang rape of a mother in front of her children on a national highway in Lahore in early September last year sets alight the debate on women's empowerment, when a senior police officer in a cautionary statement suggested that "women should not leave the house after dark."

The film's main character would be set against a very similar background: a young girl goes on a long bike ride and is set upon by a group of young men who would harass her and eventually try to rape and kill her, but instead 'Sheenogai' - the name of the character - fights back and disables her attackers before riding off into the proverbial sunset.

Sheenogai poster featuring Marina riding a motorbike on the beach
Sheenogai poster featuring Marina riding a motorbike on the beach (TRTWorld)

She says it all started when a makeup artist in the film industry joined up with them to learn how to ride motorbikes. 

"One day she approached me and said I know a film director who is looking for someone who can ride motorbikes. But then it turns out they were looking for an actual actor because the riding motorbikes part was only about 10 percent, they really wanted me to act,” says Marina.

And so Marina did, she joined an acting school and after a crash course, was debuting in her first action film.

"Initially I was very nervous, wasn't really sure if I could do all this but when I got on the set the first time and they put me in the whole costume, and the make up, I really felt like 'Sheenogai', it was an amazing experience."

Marina with some of her students
Marina with some of her students (TRTWorld)

In the plumes of dust, back at the ground, there's laughter all around – the veterans of 'Rowdy Riders’ are sharing tales of the week between themselves.

The wheels are in motion for Marina, onwards and upwards. She bears the true grit of Karachi – the world's her oyster and she's living her dream.

Source: TRT World