Mathura/Agra: On any busy traffic crossing in the historic Mughal city of Agra, one would be surprised to see the number of women on two-wheelers. Not only young girls, but more and more middle-aged women, including housewives, are now seen enjoying their new-found freedom of mobility, a stark contrast from a few years ago.
One can witness similar scenes some 60 kilometers away in Mathura, the city considered sacred by Hindus being the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
Mathura resident Pawani Khandelwal, who describes herself as a raging feminist, truly believes that something as simple as riding a two-wheeler can transform lives of middle-aged housewives in small towns where even switching from wearing a saree to a salwar-suit is seen as a revolution.
Being able to ride a "scooty" - a smaller version of a scooter with auto-transmission - can empower women by making them self-dependent, she says.
That was the reason that when she decided to start a scooter driving school for women, she could not think of a better name than ‘Aatm Nirbhar' - literally meaning self-dependent.
"Bicycles are now out of fashion. Most women go for a scooty or an electric scooter. After school hours, you will find so many of them with kids tucked tightly to their backs hurrying back home," commented school teacher Meera Gupta.
"You can see girls zooming past, competing with boys as if to declare they are second to none," she added.
The 23-year-old Pawani realised the need for an all-women driving school when her mother Rekha Khandelwal - who had never even ridden a bicycle - wanted to learn riding a scooty.
"I have been riding a two-wheeler (a Royal Enfield motorcycle presently) myself now for over seven years and therefore I was always under the impression that it is basic thing to know and most people - men or women - already know how to ride a two-wheeler," Pawani told IANS.
But when her mother wanted to learn riding a scooty, she had a really tough time finding a lady trainer.
"That made me realise how difficult it is for women to learn this very basic skill because men in their families don't have the patience to teach them, and women in small towns aren't very comfortable with male trainers," she said.
"When we began searching a lady trainer for my mom, I realised that in every household there was at least one woman who was in dire need to learn to ride a scooty. Moreover, I realised that for most women, especially housewives, riding a scooty isn't just a mode of transport, but a feeling of youth and freedom," Pawani added.
Fueled by this desire to help her mother and other women like her, Pawani set up a purely women-driven and women-oriented two-wheeler riding school in November last year in Mathura. In just over a year, Aatm Nirbhar - which started with just a dozen women - has already expanded to four more cities including Agra, Bharatpur, Jaipur and Vrindavan training over 1,100 women.
The initiative has also been recognised by the Transport Ministry of Uttar Pradesh and the Central government's "Start-Up India" programme.
Pawani says that in a country with an unreliable public transport, most women - especially in small towns and cities - have to depend on their husbands, brothers and auto-rikshaws for one of the most basic human needs - mobility - be it for dropping their children to school, going shopping or to their tailor, and other basic chores outside their homes.
With most women who sign up with Aatm Nirbhar not even able to ride a bicycle, their training is conducted over 10 one-hour sessions over 10 days, after which they can confidently ride the scooty and are awarded a certificate of learning.
Since all of its students are women, all training sessions are scheduled keeping in mind their convenience and the lady trainers pick the student from her house and drops her back after the training session. This has helped the organisation win the trust of not only the women learners, but also their families.
Moreover, with majority of its trainers coming from marginalised families, it is making more women financially self-dependent by opening up new job opportunities for them.
Pawani started by creating a Facebook page to reach out to women to tell them about her school for driving. Women from age 16 to 60 signed up to learn how to ride a scooty with most of them surprisingly being middle-aged housewives.
Each one of our trainers and students have a motivating story to tell - a story of their discovery of freedom, independence and self-reliance, says Pawani.
"In the next two years, we want to expand to every tier-2 and tier-3 city of India with the support of self-driven women," she adds.
On March 8 - which is celebrated globally as Women's Day - Aatm Nirbhar organised an entrepreneurship summit for women which was attended by over a 150 business women and budding female entrepreneurs.
"Aatm Nirbhar is not just a company, but a thought that has inspired and continues to inspire thousands of women to rediscover their lost sense of independence and self reliance," Pawani says.
(The feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at email@example.com)