‘Braking’ Stereotypes

‘Braking’ Stereotypes

Women have been riding bikes since the history of motorcycling itself but it is only in the past decade that women riders are coming out in big numbers to break stereotypes, writes Manu Shrivastava

On a dusty highway north of Delhi, a solo female biker stops at a roadside dhaba to break her journey, rest and refuel. Lost in her thoughts, planning the next leg of her trip, she almost ignores the four moustache-bearing, six-feet something men staring her down — less lecherous, yet, more intimidating to see a woman ‘outdoor’, by herself and in control. The biker finishes her meal, jumps back on the bike and speeds away on the highway, only to realise a speeding white SUV with the four men right behind her. The car speeding to run her down, stopping a few millimetres away from her bike’s
rear wheel before revving its engine again and chasing the biker. This went on for a long 80 km stretch, only to be outwitted by the biker in what can be called a lucky escape.
This may be a one-off instance but many women bikers face varying degrees of unwanted attention, intimidation and judgemental sermons when they come out to ‘follow their heart’.

Vrooming past

Hyderabad-based biker Kiran Mortha, who survived that 80 km highway chase, learned to ride a bike as a 16-year-old through friends. Today, the 32-year-old psychologist and writer balances her profession and passion well. In 2015, she bought her first bike and
started with short trips. She waited for a self-owned puppy to be old
enough to finally, in 2017, venture to Khardung La Pass. And then, there was no looking back. The journey to the world’s highest motorable road was not an easy one. “It was a test of mental strength. The dangerous roads, beautiful but intimidating terrain, unfavourable oxygen levels and temperature conditions and the wilderness makes the ride even more challenging.”

Women bikers have the most awe-inspiring and motivating stories on why they chose to ride bikes — to rebel, create an identity, express resilience and strength as a woman, just to travel, rebuild their lives with a ‘modified’ self; for many, it’s just the brand new way of life. “It’s like asking why did you fall in love?” Kiran is quick to retort. “The idea of independence, being able to control something powerful is why I, instantaneously, fell in love with bikes.” 

For Suparna Sarkar, a motorcycle-training instructor based out of Gurugram, riding a bike was basically a natural extension of her adventurous self. “I come from an Army background and was always looking out for adventures even as a child.” When she was in college she saw boys riding their bikes, “vrooming around” and
thought “why can’t girls do the same?” “I was naturally tuned and attracted towards bikes,” she exclaims quoting instances when amid loud noises and traffic she could hear
an approaching motorcycle and when several times her friends thought she was “checking out guys” when she was actually just checking out their bikes. “Oh, and my favourite hang-out place was… a parking lot!”

Mohua Polley
Mohua Polley

Support galore

Her family was supportive and so was her husband, also a biking enthusiast. They got married driving into their marriage venue ‘on their superbikes’. Suparna was recently felicitated by STRE (She Travels on a Royal Enfield) in November 2019 at Goa, during Rider Mania — the biggest gathering of Royal Enfield riders across the world. STRE is a four-year-old initiative by the same brand that aims to “celebrate women on bikes and get more women around motorcycles — not just to ride but even sit pillion or perform moto-art,” says Hema Choudhary, a biker handling the STRE initiative for Royal Enfield. Mamta Rana, a 40-year-old government employee with the GST and Customs Department started her awe-inspiring journey on an Activa. Keeping all stereotypes aside, she went for long ‘solo rides’ on her Activa that included Dehradun, Rishikesh, Jaipur, etc. “I upgraded to a motorbike five years ago only because my older vehicle was not conducive to my ambitions of longer rides that took me to Bhutan and Nepal.” She loves the feeling of freedom that long-distance rides provide. Her passion for riding is evident from the fact that she travels almost 60 km one way from her home in Ghaziabad to her office in Meerut and back everyday on her bike. Thirty-three year old Mohua Polley, originally from Kolkata, but working in Mumbai, started riding her father’s bike when she was in the eighth standard. “My home tutor inspired me a lot. He would take these adventurous journeys on his bike with his friends and had amazing stories to tell.” That was the beginning and “there was no looking back.”

The humdrum of life took precedence for some time when she had to finish her education and get a job, but her passion kept simmering inside all the while. It was only in 2013, when she met another woman biker and managed to realise her dreams fully.
There are hundreds of biker clubs, many exclusively for women, all over India. Although urban pockets — Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, etc. — are home to a majority of these clubs, the trend is now spreading to the next tier of cities too.

Mamta Rana
Mamta Rana

In the spirit

“It’s important for all members of a group to have the same attitude and temperament to maintain the spirit and motivation.” Their group has members who prefer long-distance cruise rides and expeditions as opposed to those interested in doing stunts and races. They’re unanimous in opposing such acts. There are myriad ‘collateral hazards’. Safety on Indian roads continues to remain an issue especially for women. Men don’t expect to see a single woman on a big bike with complete gear and full control and often get aggressive when encountered with one. Many women riders have to exercise some basic caution through their journeys like not revealing their final destination, making people believe they are with their brothers or friends who are ‘following behind’ and giving the impression that you know the locals. Often people ask if I’m travelling alone, says Kiran and it’s then that you have to be on guard and “kill any stray or perverse thought that may arise in their minds, then and there.”

The biggest problem remains social constraints that probably every biker has to go through. “People just don’t get it,” says Mamta. The battle is to fight the stigma in your own head. Her family relented to her “madness” when she continued her passion despite losing a part of her finger in a road accident two years ago. Suparna rues the fact that a woman’s choice is always questioned. “Women handle all sorts of machines every day in their lives. It could be a washing machine, a flying aircraft or a car. But, somehow, people just can’t
wrap their heads around the fact that a woman can ride a bike by herself.” And that needs to change!

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