These Girls Are Challenging The Status Quo Of Biking In India, And How
It’s time to stop genderising motorcycling just because it needs the operation of a clutch
I’m paraphrasing here, but “it’s a clutch, and gears; it’s not very complicated” is the sentiment expressed by most of the motorcyclists I spoke to for this article. Women who ride motorcycles — by which I mean geared motorcycles, a separate category of two-wheeler license — appear to attract much more attention than the utilitarian commuter on a gearless scooter.
This has only grown since we’ve had a proliferation of international brands in the country. A large motorcycle is a “man’s place”, and a woman on such a motorcycle is a novelty (and thus a marketing opportunity, wrapped in fetishism). Consequently, these women attract all sorts of commentary and attention — due, undue, congratulatory, prurient, envious, condescending, empathetic.
“I look good on a motorcycle,” chimes in Kochhar. “What can I do?”
On the phenomenon…
“20 years down, there won’t be as much gushing over women riders. There are drivers who are women; we don’t gush,” explains Huda Masood, an entrepreneur who’s been riding motorcycles for six years and is partial to adventure motorcycles. There’s a whole lot of applause and Instagram likes that go with it, but the motorcyclists themselves are pragmatic. The consensus seems to be that the gender labels are entirely unnecessary. “It shouldn’t be that way. We talk about equality, but women who ride get more attention on social media than men, and they’re often used as a tool for marketing,” says Anam Hashim, who calls herself India’s only professional female motorcycle stunt rider
This “novelty” attracts media eyeballs; and it would remain merely a marketing ploy if it were not for the practical considerations of gender. “I tuck my hair into my helmet when I ride, so as not to attract attention. I’ve experienced groups of boys trying to race with me on the street. It happened to me in Rajasthan, with a bunch of drunk boys. As a woman, I’m like ‘I’ll call the cops!’ But what if you’re in the middle of nowhere?” says Priyanka Kochhar, a model and motorcycle enthusiast who’s something of a polarising personality, with her 1,75,000 Instagram followers and access to most brands in the industry. She too feels that attaching gender to a joyful activity is pointless.
If you speak to anyone in digital media, they’ll tell you that Instagram is where it’s at. The term “influencer” usually refers to an Instagram personality first, and other social media later. It’s a phenomenon that’s made minor and major celebrities of folks outside TV and film, with brands paying real money to be endorsed and promoted by people with strong audiences. What started off as a photography sharing app has become a surprisingly strong force for branding, sales and conversation. It used to be that great content attracted an audience, and consequently brand deals. Today, the deals attract the wannabes.
Explains Sharvari Manakawad, a social media strategist and motorcycle traveller, “Today, I think people are simply getting into it (Instagram) for the freebies. Celebrity for celebrity’s sake. Since I’ve reduced my output to just my motorcycle, and occasional travel pics, my followers are dropping off.” Manakawad was an early entrant to Instagram, and has had her share of perks as an “influencer”. But for her, as with many other motorcyclists, it started as a means of sharing information, pictures and chronicling experience. The perks came later.
“If I came up to you and said ‘Hi, I’m a *female* biker’, says Manakawad wryly, “You would be like, ‘yeah, I can see that’. The only reason I can think of to add gender to the equation is for the extra attention.” She laments the entitlement among new Instagram posters, who are in it for the freebies, tagging brands, buying audiences and hoping to get paid — the prayer flag before the trip to Ladakh, basically.
That, however, doesn’t rationalise the fundamentally biased presumption that female motorcyclists on Instagram are posting only for attention. Hashim comes from a conservative Muslim family in Lucknow. She has to deal with negative comments from her community, from her family and others when she posts pictures related to fitness — essential for her profession as a motorcycle stunter.
“I look good on a motorcycle,” chimes in Kochhar. “What can I do? I have to answer why I get opportunities that actual journalists don’t. Should I deny myself opportunities?” Brands have always used attractive women to sell products, and such opportunities do present themselves to the riders we spoke to, but the opportunities have always followed the content; Instagram doesn’t form a serious revenue stream for them.
On ‘empathetic’ bros…
For women occupying a traditionally male space, a steady stream of thinly disguised condescension in the form of empathy, advice and general-purpose gyaan seems to follow. Like “you should post more serious motorcycling content (on Instagram) so that people will take you seriously,” to “maybe you should rub some mud on your face so that people will believe that you actually rode off-road” (this came from a senior motoring journalist). Actual paraphrased quotes.
Kochhar finds that most advice comes from industry colleagues, usually in the form of sarcasm or jibes. As a model, comments about her appearance are par for the course. Even her eating habits are not off the table. “I find it amusing that there’s nothing else to talk about,” she says. Her knights in shining armour do seem to be fattened on sour grapes. Advice was less forthcoming when she came 2nd in a flattrack race, beating out most national and international motoring journalists. They were probably busy scrubbing the serious muck off their faces.
These women attract all sorts of commentary and attention — due, undue, congratulatory, prurient, envious, condescending, empathetic.
On the ‘sisterhood’…
The appeal of all-woman rider groups lasts for a limited period of time for some of these riders, if any. “When I started riding, I rode with different male peer groups. They all taught me something different — about different bikes and skills. I was never made fun of for being unable to do something; gender was never part of the mocking process,” explains Masood. She believes that womencentric riding groups tend to come together for safety in numbers, but are inherently limited.
“When you go abroad, you don’t know who’s under the helmet. Why — in India — should we have a group of women? Riding with men, we learn a lot more,” says Kochhar. Her experiences riding with an all-female group have been less than ideal, devolving into ego tussles and one-upmanship. This, however, should be familiar to motorcyclists in general, regardless of gender. Manakawad, an enthusiastic participant in the Scrambler Owner’s Club (she rides a Ducati Scrambler motorcycle), enjoys the travel and technology-focussed banter on their WhatsApp group. “I can’t ask the same questions on lady rider WhatsApp groups. What is connecting them is that they’re women first, not bikers first.”
That said, all the ladies remain friendly with the sorts of riding groups that do exist, but seem to have outgrown the group dynamic – of the specific niche carved out for women who ride two-wheelers with gears and a clutch.
On the struggle…
The common theme in all these stories — ones that deserve applause — is that it isn’t easy to be a woman riding a motorcycle, and that has everything to do with gender.
Riding simply isn’t something that women do, and if they do, it must be about attention, rebellion or anything other than free will, desire and joy. Kochhar, who grew up and studied in relatively metropolitan Pune, needs to fight the opposition from her well-meaning family to this day, as a grown adult living in another city with her husband. “My parents are protective. Scooters are OK, but riding a ‘boy’s machine’ means you’re trying to get out of the mould. You’re trying to be rebellious.” Over time, her family has opened their minds to her interest in motorcycling, but can’t help their protective instincts. Their recent holiday in Leh left them horrified that their daughter has actually ridden a motorcycle there.
Hashim has had it a bit worse. Coming from conservative Lucknow, even with a relatively liberal family, has been tough, particularly considering her chosen profession, which has no female representation — motorcycle stunting. When she moved to Pune, ostensibly for higher studies, her parents had no idea how she intended to lead her life. It’s only when they found out about her stunt shows that it dawned on them. They haven’t supported Hashim’s interest, and the 22-year old says she’s been on her own since.
Regardless, our motorcyclists have found a way to keep the joy alive and spread a little as well. Both Masood and Kochhar admit to being particularly chuffed when other women are inspired to learn the skills necessary to ride. “My TVS Suzuki Fiero goes from woman to woman; to those who are learning how to ride,” says Masood, while Kochhar routinely fields requests to speak to the parents of young girls who would like to learn how to ride, and to convince them that this is something that girls can do. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through, for the simple joy of riding a motorcycle.