The Way of the Bikerni: Women and Motorbikes in Urban India
The first time I went riding with the Bikerni, a Delhi-based women-only motorcycle club, we were supposed to meet at 5.30am. As a woman, I did not fancy the idea of stepping out of the house on my own before sunrise. Even more so in Delhi. When it comes to women’s safety in public space, the Indian capital has a terrible reputation. As I opted for a cab, I wondered how the fear of gender violence impacted the women I was about to encounter. In this contribution, I explore the experiences of the members of the Bikerni, investigating how biking is at the centre of feminist stances. I intend to show how biking is a space of feminist action, not because the Bikernis necessarily think of themselves as feminists – even though the majority of them do – but because, in a cultural context where female emancipation and segregation exist in perpetual conflict, the choice to use a motorbike inevitably comes with a solid stand in favour of gender equality. Nonetheless, for the women in this study, biking is a lot of other things too, as, for instance, it places them within a larger network of transnational consumption and identity production.
The Delhi Bikerni are a branch of a larger organization that originated in Pune. The club was founded to promote women’s biking, to create a network they can rely on, and to “encourage women to ride on adventures they would have never thought of before” (from the Bikerni website). At the time of this research, between 2015 and 2017, the Delhi chapter counted around 25 members, who met on a regular basis to ride together or with other mixed-gender groups. Since then, they have grown and gained visibility, stirring international curiosity and often taking political stands that promote women’s education and inclusivity in city spaces.
In recent years, with the rise of the so-called “legal biker” and biking culture, (Thompson, 2008; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995) the number of female bikers is increasing. Despite this growth, and even if mobility has gained a lot of traction in the social sciences, motorbikes remain under-researched. Only a handful of works examine biking in non-Western contexts, and women are generally absent from them (Nyanzi et al., 2005; Sopranzetti, 2014). Scholarship researching biking in the West is also scarce (Pinch & Reimer, 2002) and stresses the historical association between bikes and men. Motorbikes are a powerful symbol of masculinity, often connected to outlaw groups (Austin et al., 2010; Hoper & Moore, 1990), and female bikers have no choice but to navigate sexist environments (Roster, 2007)
The members of the Bikerni spoke openly about the challenges of being a woman in a context dominated by men. They denounced stereotyping, bullying, eve-teasing (catcalling), verbal abuse, street harassment, despite facing criticism at home and with friends who believe that riding is not a woman’s thing, for more reasons than one. For instance, Lara, a 32-year-old doctor from East Delhi, complained about a female friend who had claimed that biking is the opposite of femininity. For Lara riding, in contrast, allows for different types of beauty to be expressed:
“There is nothing wrong with being a tomboy, and you can be as beautiful as you are and ride a bike. It’s not mandatory that you give up your feminine side. You can be like you want. I can wear Indian attire and I can ride a bike.”
When she was young, and had just begun riding, Lara’s neighbours and acquaintances criticised her father for getting her a bike:
“Neighbours, you know, they say, why should we get girls bikes, we should give them cars, because bikes are frivolous and if they get one, then they will wander around here and there, without any purpose, we won’t be able to get a hold of them, or control them, she will become a menace, and you won’t be able to be proud of her, she won’t study. I proved them wrong, I’m a doctor who has a bike.”
The notion that women need to prove their value vis-à-vis biking manifested itself in other ways, too. Eesha, a 26-year-old office worker, told me of how she was once bullied by two young men on a bike. With aggressive overtaking and honking, they forced her into racing. Fearing physical violence, she did not stop. When she reached the end of the road, the two men complimented her riding, de facto implying that their harassment was but a simple test.
Another rider, Meghna, 25, recounted:
“So there is a lady, Pallavi, she is a very experienced rider, and this guy Nikhil commented [on a Facebook picture] he would like to see my [Meghna’s] riding skills, then Pallavi m’am replied that she [Meghna] is a very good rider and there is no need of doubting [it]. Then that guy liked the comment, and said I want you [Meghna] to prove your riding skills. At once I felt so irritated. Who are you to tell me I should prove my riding skills to you? You are nobody. Then I said ‘ok, I will show it to you someday’.”
Such experiences did not discourage them from riding. If anything, their dedication to motorbikes was often reinforced. They stressed that bikes felt safer than Delhi’s public transport. Both Shruti, 52, and Lara claimed that they had started to use bikes for their daily commutes after being groped and verbally abused on buses and rickshaws. For them. opting for a private means of transport ensured better safety. Thus, the bike is seen as a faithful companion:
Swati (university student, 27): “We have such a strong bond, she takes me around, she protects me, so I always thank her, hahahah, I know I sound so stupid, but I’m always happy to see her. My bike’s a girl because only girls can save girls, no? Men can’t be expected to be saviours…”
However, in order to feel safe on a bike, adequate technical and mental skills need to be developed. Part of the Bikerni’s mission is to help women build up confidence and to learn how to sort practical problems. Group rides can be conducive to this, as Eesha described:
“When we went to Agra in April , we were eleven, we were not scared, the only thing that was bothering a little bit, if somebody’s bike will get broken, but we also took spares for the bike, […] no feeling like we should have a man around. All girls. That ride made many people more confident, they learned how to ride, and people passing through, in cars, they had families, they were making a video, thumps up, and all that. It was a very great feeling, it made everybody a more sensible rider. Complete, happy, confident ride without men.”
For the Bikerni, riding in formation is an important part of the experience. Bikers follow a certain structure, using specific gestures and a pre-established hierarchy. There is always an appointed leader of the group who rides ahead, another experienced rider who closes, while the rest of the pack rides responsibly in the middle. Overtaking and changes of direction have to be duly signalled with hand movements to the bikes behind, and quiet greetings are shared amongst bikers that pass each other on the road, almost like a secret salute. This structure builds a sense of community, and the members of the Bikerni believe that being a biker is more than just using a motorbike. Like Shruti put it: “when you are a biker, the bike becomes an extension of your body.”
A sense of community is also constructed via a common ethos based on the notion that riding is more than going from A to B. Charity, good-will and activism are central to the biking experience of the Bikernis. I once joined a mixed-gender ride to Agra to visit a cafe run by acid attack survivors. Thus, the Bikerni placed themselves within a feminist paradigm of inclusiveness and support for women who had endured gender violence. Another example of this is the Bikerni’s organization of and participation in an all-women rally around Delhi in November 2016, with the aim of drawing attention to the capital’s gender inequalities.
They want their actions to have an impact, as this quote from Lara shows:
“One lady biker she wrote to me: ‘When I used to be in class 8, I used to see your pictures on Facebook, and I used to look up to you and used to think when I grow up, I want to be a female biker like her’, and now she does racing and all, it feels good, you know, because of us, at least they have found their independence and passion.”
The Bikerni’s commitment to charity places them within a transnational biking culture that breaks away from outlaw groups (Sawyer & Judd, 2012), promoting an ethos based on both hyper individualism and community engagement (Thompson, 2009).
This biking culture, or subculture (Schouten & McAlexander, 1995), is accessible via and revolves around consumption. The purchase of bikes and merchandise allows the members of the Bikerni to sport a look that makes them immediately recognizable as part of that subculture, as opposed to those who only use the bike as a means of transport. The women I worked with stressed that looking like a biker was important, and some of them did their best to look feminine and tough at the same time. They would also wear pink or purple, the colours of the Bikerni, placing themselves within a global sub-culture that hails back to such models as American Harley-Davidson riders, MotoGP, and Superbike, and that is growing rapidly. Women-only clubs like the Bikerni are appearing all over the globe, transforming gender relations and women’s own perceptions of what they can do. They also provide exciting avenues of research for social scientists interested in the intersection between gender and mobility.
In the case of the Bikerni, their engagement with city space through independent mobility, and the unavoidable contestation of patriarchal societal norms, reveal how feminist stances and mobility are inevitably entangled for women in Delhi. In the quotes reported above, the word feminist or feminism never appeared, and yet the narratives of the Bikerni are strongly influenced by unequal gender relations. Hence, the mere fact of pursuing biking and being visible in public space renders the members of the Bikerni feminist actors, whether they choose to self-define as such or not.
As I write this, the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging India and Delhi. The women in this work have all been affected in more ways than one. They do not ride as much as they used to, but their love for bikes stands strong. As social researchers, we might wonder about the logic of writing about places and people that have been deeply transformed by the events of the past year. Have we suddenly become historians? Maybe, but I do believe that to build a tomorrow, it’s important to remember who we were before COVID-19 hit, especially because the road ahead for female bikers is only just beginning to be paved.
Maddalena Chiellini is an anthropologist, writer, and translator. She holds a BA from the University of Bologna and a Master’s Degree from SOAS (University of London). She’s specialized on gender in urban South Asia. The research presented here was funded by the European Agency HERA, as a part of the research project “SINGLE”. She is currently working with on a research project with the University of Florence.
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