“I was raised in a society where there is a lot of pressure on you to score good grades, excel in science subjects and grow up to become a successful doctor or an engineer. I was a quick learner and always had the vigilance to experience new things. Yet I did not find any interest in science subjects like biology or mathematics and if there was one thing that I wanted to be best at and excel in was cycling.
My family and I lived in Skardu city which has fair opportunities for men and women for formal education as compared to district’s far flung areas.
Yet there is no room for a woman to do sports, no clubs, no school activities and well, no acceptance. I was four when I started to ride a tricycle.
I never had my own yet I would ride my brother’s or some other male’s in my family. When it was time to switch to a bicycle I insisted my mother to get me one but she refused saying that I was soon going to hit my puberty and it was of no use anyway.
I always had a very rebellious nature and I was known to be a fighter. Gender roles always struck a chord within me and when someone would tell me specifically how something was not my cup of tea, I would want to prove it otherwise even more so. I always had a knack for sports. When my brother moved out for his studies, I started to ride his bicycle. I enjoyed it so much and I was actually very good at it.
One day when I came back from school, all excited for the time of the day when I used to cycle, I found out that my mom had gifted the bicycle to a male cousin in the family. That was the point where I realized negotiation was not an option, I had to fight back. The thought of not being able to do something which I so passionately wanted to do always took me aback. I kept cycling till the age of sixteen, despite my parents constantly preaching how I had to stop because I had hit my puberty which is something referred to as balig. I was cat called and made fun of. Mere act of a woman cycling in the neighborhood was unacceptable to an extent that people even used to come to my parents and asked them to stop me. My parents would tell me how I was supposed to respect the culture that I lived in. It got to a point where I had to stop because of the societal pressure.
I did not cycle for some two to three years of my life. When I moved to Lahore to pursue my further education, I started to cycle again. It was really hard to get started after a gap of two to three years but I still performed extra ordinarily. When I got to know about Higher Education Commissions’ Women Cycling Championship, I decided to appear in the sports trials. Only six women from the cohort are selected that represent the institute at the final competition. It was such a great feeling to be one of the selected ones.
When I appeared in the Higher Education Commissions’ Women Cycling Championship 2019, I was reluctant and fearful in having faith in my capabilities. To be fair, I did not even own a bicycle and I was going to compete with girls who had been practicing non-stop for years. I admit that it was one of the toughest things I had ever been a part of. Yet I won the competition and secured a gold medal to my name. It was unbelievable and I cannot think of a greater achievement of my life. This award boosted my spirits and I decided that I had to empower many women in my hometown for whom doing sports is a far-fetched idea. In June 2020 my brother and I started Seeker’s Academy which works on personal development, career counseling, and sports. Under its flag I started a bicycling school in Skardu with an aim to provide the kind of training I wish I had for the girls of the area.
I was also able to achieve the 25 Under 25 award in 2020 given by The Little Art which welcomes 25 young women each year with stories of resilience, fearlessness, and passion to encourage and inspire millions every year. My parents who were concerned about what society would say about their daughter cycling, cheer the loudest when they see me going places in the field. The same people who would make fun of me or tried embarrassing my parents now congratulate them for my achievements. I have seen them praise me. All of this gives me more strength to take my bicycling school places and empower as many girls as I can to never let go off their dreams.
Currently I am working as a founder of Aman Safar which works on interfaith/intercultural harmony along with Seeker’s Academy. Both of these working on women empowerment in different ways. There is a spur in the society for these initiatives. I know I will face the criticism and hatred but I will also get acceptance. Many of the residents think sports for women is out of Islam. Others have their own opinions but one thing I know is that I will have to be on their level and understand them in order to bring about the change I wish to see. I want women of the Skardu community to be on the same footing as men may it be sports or any other domain. I have enough faith in my cause that I will be able to achieve this goal which is only possible through the help of people around me.”
From Afsana: Saira's story showcases the meaning of representing change for not just oneself, but for a larger community through her cycling efforts. Yet there is more to be done to provide support for women like Saira to further their efforts of women empowerment. Please continue to support our platform to learn more ways to help, and if you also have a story to share as a Pakistani woman, please contact us.
Written by Sadia Rashid of Afsana