Tucking her hair into a helmet, Zenith Irfan, 21, is preparing for a motorcycle ride through the busy roads of Lahore, Pakistan, despite hostile stares and gaping mouths. Lahore's roads are lawless, crammed with donkey carts, horse carriages, and rickshaws; drivers weave in and out of the livestock and zoom past traffic lights.
Irfan was drawn to motorcycles after learning that her late father had always wanted to ride across the country on one. She made it a goal to carry out his dream. After she became tired of commuting to university in a rickshaw, her family bought her the first motorbike— a small Honda C70—and her mother insisted that it was now or never that she start learning.
Irfan learned how to bike in the wide and empty streets of her colony, gaining the confidence and experience to take to Lahore's treacherous roads. Once she went full-speed around the main square, she admits she was scared and describes the acclimation process to the streets as "gruesome."
Nevertheless, after two years of both city and rural trips, Irfan decided to plan her cross-country odyssey. Famous Sufi poet Amir-e-Khusro Dehlavi once said, "If heaven is on earth, then it's in Kashmir." With this in mind, Irfan packed a few things and took off, embarking on a solo journey there, stopping off in the misty green mountains of Murree, to Muzaffarabad, and then to Neelam Valley, where the scenery moved her to tears.
"I had never seen snow," Irfan recalls. "What a euphoric moment it was for me to have made it to Kashmir from Lahore. I felt liberated and connected with my father."
On her solo trip, Irfan covered over 700 miles in six days. She was often slowed to a single-digit speed due to unpaved roads and rocky terrain. For the most part, Kashmir villagers were intrigued and friendly as she passed through town. Rural communities are made up of tribes and, despite poverty, literacy rates in Kashmir stand proportionally above the national average at 72 percent, while 88 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school, according to official figures. Irfan believes this is why her experience was safer: because people are more educated, unlike in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it wasn't possible for her to travel alone.
It was only after she returned from Kashmir that she experienced aggressive hostility from others: Irfan set up Facebook blog called "1 Girl 2 Wheels" in order to document her travels, which is where she experienced the most harassment. "It got bad. I was at breaking point and was so depressed because the comments were absolutely horrendous. So many people said I was a 'disgrace to the symbol of Islam' and that I should not be a Muslim, 'where is my scarf,' 'where is my burka'—which is quite ironic because if I wear one on the bike, I'll get more attention."
As Irfan's social media presence grew, she was worried the the Pakistani sect of the Taliban might hunt her down if she disclosed her location. Now, however, she believes it's all about fate. While many people still believe Pakistan is completely plagued by terrorism, Irfan wants to change how the country is perceived.
For now, though, it's all about motorcycling. "For a Pakistani girl in a South Asian community, this is the biggest privilege any girl can have. I know so many girls who want to go out and travel and they can't because their parents won't allow them to. For me, I had to make the most of it."