India's women bikers: Trailblazers in more ways than one
- 24 September 2012
- From the section Business
Motorbikes have always been popular in India, but it's usually men who are in the driving seat.
Now, more women are starting to ride these machines, and a number of female-only clubs have helped kick-start this trend, and overturn widely held stereotypes.
Aparna Bandodkar admits she gets some strange looks as she pulls up to work.
Travelling to the office on a Royal Enfield Standard 350 motorbike isn't, after all, the regular mode of transport for a dentist.
Aparna is one of a growing number of women riding big motorbikes in India. She says her bike, which she's nicknamed Bijli (meaning thunderbolt in Hindi) is like a friend to her.
"It's a thrill riding such a big beast - it gives me confidence and it's a head turner; I just can't imagine life without it," she says, brimming with affection for the machine.
"If men can ride motorbikes, why can't women," asks Aparna, who first started going for rides with her dad at a young age.
In a country where two-wheelers are the vehicle of choice for millions, seeing a female on a motorbike isn't uncommon.
Except they're usually the ones taking a backseat while the man drives.
"People say girls can't kick-start bikes or put them on a stand without the help of a man; I just wanted to prove girls can do that too," she says as she powers up Bijli to demonstrate.
Aparna recently started a club in Mumbai for female Royal Enfield riders, known as the Regals.
In recent years, a number of women-only bike clubs have begun to spring up in India, a sign of increasing participation.
In Bangalore, Hop on Gurls is another group for Bullet riders, and there are more and more female only biker meet-ups happening across the country.
The Association of Female Bikers in India, Bikerni, is the first India-wide motorcycle club for women. It was started 18 months ago and has more than 100 active members who regularly take part in group rides.
It was co-founded by Firdaus Sheikh, who estimates there are as many as 4,000 women bikers across India.
I meet Firdaus, who's dressed in full biker leathers and a helmet, as she powers up a mountain on her motorbike in the resort of Lonavla, a few hours drive from her home city of Pune, in Maharashtra. She's joined by seven other Bikerni riders, from across the state.
"We started Bikerni to empower women through motorcycling," she says. "We decided there was a need for women to have this group to learn to ride bikes, to have a platform where they can come together and support one another."
Firdaus, 23, started riding smaller bikes from a very young age. She used to ride with male clubs, but said she often felt out of place.
"Some men have a very narrow mindset, they say that girls should only be riding (smaller) scooters, but I don't understand the difference. Both have an engine, both have two wheels and both consume fuel, so whether you choose a bike or a scooter shouldn't make a difference."
India is the second largest motorbike market in the world, after China. Last year, some 13.4 million, two-wheelers (motorbikes, scooters and mopeds) were sold in the country, 14% more than in the previous year, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturer (Siam). The lion's share of this was motorcycle sales.
It is impossible to estimate how many people overall are riding bikes in India, but experts at Autocar India put it at well above the 350 million mark. While as many as one-third of scooter riders are women, the numbers of females on big motorbikes is thought to be much smaller, below the 5% mark, according to the magazine.
It is a small, yet significant, minority which is growing as attitudes in India change, argues Shaikh.
"Gradually, India is becoming more broadminded, mentalities are becoming more accepted, so I think women are shedding their inhibitions and pursuing motorcycles.
"There was a time when women were bound by traditions, they used to fit in the profile of being a housewife or a mother or a daughter. When it came to pursuing their passions, they'd have to compromise. But today they're realising their self-worth."
Another factor driving the change is the increased availability of motorbikes. "There was a time when you only rode Royal Enfields," quips Shaikh as she grips the handlebars of her treasured Pulsar 180 CC Classic.
To some, the sheer weight of the machines - some can weigh in at almost 440lb (200kg), and their height from the ground can make them harder to ride, but even this is changing.
Companies are introducing lighter bikes, with lower stands into the Indian market to tap into a growing interest from women. The Italian firm Ducati this year launched the Monster 795 bike into the India, which weighs far less and is lower to the ground.
But practical considerations aside, there are other hurdles which many women bikers have to overcome. Having the choice, and chance, to ride motorbikes remains a challenge. This is a society where women are often forced to take a backseat in more ways than one.
"It's still not going to be like it is in the West, you're definitely not going to see women riding off on Harleys into the sunset," says Hormuz Sorabjee, the editor of Autocar India.
Sorabjee says the Indian bike market is primarily focused on commuters and for women, scooters rather than motorbikes. "By and large, women are still quite conservative to be going on big bikes and zooming off," he argues.
But biking groups believe increased support for women who want to ride bikes, and the increased availability of maintenance workshops to educate women in the mechanics of motorcycles, will help drive uptake in a nation where two-wheelers are so popular.
For India's biker women, taking to the roads offers a sense of freedom and independence like no other. They might make up a very small percentage of the traffic here, but those in the saddle are arguably trailblazers in more ways than one.