By Xari Jalil –
The Lahore Transport Company’s women bus conductors are taking apart the gender gap, one stop at a time
Shazia, who is an Intermediate graduate, finds her job interesting and different. “I am someone who wants to do something that is unique,” she says proudly. “I don’t want to do run of the mill jobs that everyone is doing.”
On a bus route called B1, from Lahore’s Sandha to R.A Bazaar, Shazia is a bus conductor. In the proper jargon of the bus language she is known to be a Fare Collector or FC for short and she has to work about 11 hours a day.
“It’s certainly not easy,” she says. “Our duty hours are officially eight hours a day but other things like traveling to and from my house to the station (she lives in Green Town), and starting the bus…all this takes some more time. So it comes to about that long. It may be interesting but it is a hectic job.”
In total, there are about three women bus conductors in Lahore’s new pink buses, an initiative by the Lahore Transport Company (LTC). This semi private company, which falls under the Chief Minister Punjab, decided to bring out some Pink Buses this year so more women could ride in them. With the buses, came the women FCs too.
This is an exclusive development for working women in Pakistan. While over 70 per cent of women work in the informal sector from their own homes, they also spread over to a labour force within some companies and organizations. But they had yet to start off in the transport sector, which is hugely male-dominated. A reason for that is that public transport is mainly used by men, which makes it more or less for men too. But with the advent of women, perhaps few in number nevertheless very much there, is bound to make it more digestible for people to see women work in such challenging areas.
“Many women can’t leave their houses in peace because either their families are insecure about them going alone, or else the buses they travel in are full of men who are ogle at them or are rude to them”
And women are not just working in the buses as fare collectors. Huma Daha, who implemented the Pink Buses project since day one, is also one of the only women who are at that level. She is the Manager, Operations and Planning since over 2 years and is going on strong, trying her best to make this project better everyday.
“Currently we have only three routes,” she says, explaining that B1 is from Sandha to RA Bazaar, B22 is from Thokar Niaz Beg to Jallo Park, and B33 is from the Railway Station to Green Town. “The buses are few because its still the beginning but we are trying to make it popular. We are doing our research on which areas of the city has a large number of women passengers.”
“We wanted to bring buses from and to all corners of Lahore, so we started these diverse bus routes, which do about three rounds each day,” she says. “But one problem is the lack of commuters. We have so few commuters for our buses that we cannot afford to get more buses on the road.”
While working women are the target there are still few women boarding on these buses. For whatever reason, these buses are still not popular.
“Many women can’t leave their houses in peace because either their families are insecure about them going alone, or else the buses they travel in are full of men who are ogle at them or are rude to them. They don’t feel secure about it. We provide them with this transport so that they can travel at ease and in comfort.”
The pink buses still have male drivers, though. The reason is that it is difficult to attain driving licenses for Light and Heavy Transit Vehicles. It takes up to three years for the license and since the Lahore Transport Company does not issue licenses on its own, till now the drivers are male. But the fare collectors are women. They are responsible for checking the bus, and having it started on time. Then they have a sheet of tickets, which are then torn off with each passenger coming on board.
Unlike the ordinary green buses, there are no commissions for passengers. Women FCs receive about Rs12,000 salary for their work. In the context of successive inflation, though, this remuneration is not much and they are struggling to keep up with expenditures at home.
“We were told that we would be paid about Rs15,000 when we applied,” says one. “But we were paid a little less. Still, I guess it’s better than not having any job, which is a big issue today in the country. And if it comes to one’s own priorities, then I would say my job has its uniqueness which makes it great!”
But isolating women from men has not stopped the sexual harassment that prevails everywhere. “We still get hooted at when we get off at bus stations,” says Shazia, who wears a pink uniform as part of her work – a trouser and a long shirt. “But who can stop that? It’s part of our society. We ignore them.”
Many people have objected on the fact that it is unhealthy that these women are separated from the society and are made to work in what they term to be a ‘capsule’.
Says one activist that these women are segregated from men causing more reason for men not to accept them. “We should have men see them more often at work for them to accept and respect women rather than continuing to let women be a sight unseen,” she says.
But Huma disagrees. “Society is not ready to accept these women. But they still have to get out of the house to work. When the time comes they will accept them, but in the meantime we can’t just go straight out. We have to help them ease their way there.”
She says that the pink buses are more of a protection than a segregation.
“The windows are tinted and once we get more women waiting at bus stops, I think the harassment is bound to decrease,” she points out. “We also want the women to know that this is a safe and affordable mode of transport rather than traveling via unsafe rickshaws and motorcycles.”
Then there is Zainab, who is a Mechanical Inspector with several men working with her and under her.
“I feel that women can do so much more than they are doing or are allowed to do today,” she says. “I have great coworkers who respect me and a very supportive family. Not to say that I have never faced any kind of chauvinistic attitude because that is prevalent everywhere but I still get a lot of respect.”
Zainab with her degree in Technotronic Engineering is incharge of inspecting every aspect of the vehicle during its refurbishment.
If the standards are compatible with LTC standards only then does she pass the bus with an approval. Most of all she has the authority and the independence to feel the power that she wants to at work.
It is not just the LTC Pink Buses that have employed women as part of their work force. There is the Korean company Daewoo as well which basically concentrates on their intercity bus routes. In every Daewoo bus there is a young woman who serves as a stewardess serving the passengers with food, and helping them out with other issues.
“I have never experienced any discomfort while serving my male passengers,” says Rukhsana. “But then I am much more confident then my colleagues. I personally think if you have confidence it becomes very easy to tackle these issues.”
“Male passengers can sometimes stare at you while you are walking down the passage doing your work,” says Maria. “But you have to ignore it. I am not doing anything wrong, therefore I must not ever make them realize that they are making me feel disturbed. But I have noticed that with time, they start to be more accustomed and used to the fact that there are women on the ground in buses just like there are women on the plane. And they are respectable, decent hardworking women.”
Pakistan’s ride into the future platform where many more women are assimilated in not just the transport sector but also other public departments seems to be slowly developing along a positive route. It may be slow, but change is inevitable. With growing chinks in the national economy and household finances, women are being forced, perhaps for the better, to go out and seek employment. If more of them are given more employment opportunities then closer to 50 per cent of this country’s population will be inducted giving the home economy a boost. But even more importantly, this will bring about a social change – that where gender is given less importance for a change.