In June 2015, Zenith Irfan motorcycled 3200 kilometres from Lahore, through Northern Pakistan and up to the Khunjerab Pass which borders China. The three week journey made her the first female Pakistani motorcyclist to ride through the northern terrains of her country.
Zenith started riding in 2013 on a small Honda CD-70. “I never knew a motorcycle, a simple vehicle, could hold so much power,” she says. “The kind of power that changes how a person views the world. I often come across a quote which says ‘Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.’ I never knew how true that was until I started riding. It’s true to the core.”
She says she immediately embraced the motorcycle as her “travelling buddy” and as her skills on the bike increased, she developed a fear of “ending up on the couch, switching through scenic pictures of nature on the computer and fantasising about how amazing it could have been if I travelled there.”
“I wanted to go out there in the wild by myself,” she says, “to know what it’s like when the mountain wind plays with your hair. I wanted to fall down in the mud and puddles, fall down and dust off the dirt.”
She says travelling through the frosty mountains of Khunjerab on the China-Pakistan border pass was a liberating but “shocking” experience. “I use the word “shocking” because I, as a Pakistani citizen, did not know how beautiful my own country was.”
Every kilometre I did was for my deceased father, who was a motorcyclist himself. As a young girl not knowing what a father’s love is, I wanted to establish a spiritual connection. A father-daughter one.
Zenith wanted to take time over the journey, to savour the greenery, to live in the moment, to meet locals. “I met a lot of people,” she says. “And all of them, whether men or women, were shocked to see a woman riding in the mountains.”
And certainly, the ride wasn’t without its challenges. “I think the hardest moment for me was when I was climbing uphill to Lake Saif–Ul–Mulook,” Zenith explains. “I fell twice on the track and injured my calves. My brakes failed as a result of the fall and I had to ride downhill with the help of gears. Despite these obstacles, I finally made it to the lake and took a huge sigh of relief.”
But while there were challenges, the moments of elation were aplenty. Zenith says one of her favourite moments was reaching the Khunjerab Pass itself. “I never knew I had the energy and physical capacity within me to ride 1000km away from my home to a place which is 16,000ft high,” she says. “I not only proved that Pakistani women are capable of brave endeavours like these, but I also challenged myself as an individual.”
Zenith has faced much online abuse since her journey, but she says she copes with it by smiling, getting on with her own life and letting others get on with theirs. As well as abuse, she received messages of support from all around the world, many telling her how she has changed people’s views of women in Pakistan. “They thought Pakistan was a country where women were solely oppressed. My motorcycle journey turned the tables on that for them.”
But Zenith acknowledges there is much progression to be made. “Culture cannot be changed overnight and there needs to be extensive campaigning about women riders in South Asia.”
The Women on Wheels demonstration in Lahore earlier this year aimed to galvanise, putting an end to street violence and harassment against women, encouraging their independence and mobility in the form of a motorcycle rally. “The majority of female riders in Pakistan are segregated in a marginalised segment of society,” Zenith says. “The rally was organised by the Punjab Government in Lahore and was very well attended.”
Zenith speaks with great excitement of her future. As well as hoping to journey through Greece and Bolivia, she says she is still focused on her home country. “Let’s just say things are about to change for Pakistan!” she says.