A female taxi driver? Beysharam!

Published: March 15, 2015

These women come to the forefront out of adversity. They wouldn’t have, if they hadn’t the need. They had no choice. PHOTO: QUARTZ INDIA/REUTERS

Do you remember the first time you drove? The very first time? When you had the ability to control a vehicle, the possibility of understanding the gears and the speeds and the various knobs and buttons that propel a collection of steel and bolts, and transport you from one place to another?

I remember that well – it gave me a sense of independence. It gave me the feeling of having control.

But that’s me. I was privileged enough to learn how to drive, not because I had mouths to feed. No one stopped me from driving, no one told me I couldn’t do it, no one told me I would be put behind bars or I would be a social pariah if I sat behind the steering wheel and drove from one place to another.

There are many women in Pakistan and across the globe who drive and travel as they wish and as they please. It’s not even a question or an issue in so many households. It’s as natural and as simple as eating your meal or meeting friends and family. To me, driving is an empowering, relaxing experience (even though I do all the chores such as picking/dropping and the likes myself).

But there are many women in the world, and in Pakistan, who do not enjoy the same privilege; these are women who have to struggle against death threats and fatwas and social chastisement just because they want to enjoy basic rights.

There are regressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia which stop women from driving altogether and the mind boggles at the idea of such a law existing in modern day world where women are climbing mountains, piloting planes and winning sports trophies.

Then there are regimes such as Afghanistan, where women like Sara Bahai get death threats for being the only female taxi driver. Sara has a degree in education and is also a mechanic. But she drives a cab out of necessity – she needs to feed and support her parents and siblings. Taliban insurgents shot and killed her brother-in-law, so she took in her sister and seven nieces and nephews. Including them, she supports about a dozen people as she drives around Mazar-e-Sharif in her yellow and white Toyota Corolla.

Male passengers send her death threats, abuse her, and tell her that what she is doing is against Islam. She continues to do what she does anyway. One is reminded of the verse that refers to such custodians of religion:

Bohat bey-sharm hay ye maa jo mazdoori ko nikli hai

Ye bacha bhook aik din nahee sehta, ye kafir hai!

(This mother, so brazen, goes out to earn a living!

This child cannot bear hunger for a day! He is an infidel!)

In Pakistan, women face many such taboos as well. I am reminded of the woman who taught me how to drive. She ran a small ramshackle office and drove a shuddery white Mehran and told me a similar life story. She went into the teaching driving business because she had no other choice. Her husband died when her children were young and she had to learn a skill that could pay and sustain her family. During the time when I drove around Karachi with her, her confidence and attitude amazed me. She shifted between sternness and affection within minutes.

When a bus driver or rickshaw driver maniacally crossed our car, she reprimanded me if I got freaked out. She told me it was as much as my right to be on the road as theirs. She spent her entire day picking and dropping and teaching clients (mostly female) how to drive – her sessions cost about Rs10,000 (around $100) and she told me how she put her kids through school and college and managed to give them a good and decent life by working hard and surviving the pressure of being a woman in what can only be called a man’s world.

It wasn’t an easy road for Zahida Kazmi either, the first female taxi driver in Pakistan. In 1992, her husband passed away, leaving her with six children to support. Through the government’s scheme at the time, Zahida got a yellow cab on easy instalments and drove to Islamabad airport every day to pick up passengers. It was an honest business but because she was a woman earning a living in a thoroughly patriarchal society, it was in no way as simple for her as it would have been for a man. She initially kept a gun with her for her own protection.

As time passed Zahida became the president of the Yellow Cab Association and she offered to teach young women how to drive. But there was little interest.

Small wonder why.

These women come to the forefront out of adversity. They wouldn’t have, if they hadn’t the need. They had no choice. It opens a plethora of questions for all of us who enjoy these privileges, without even thinking twice about them.

There are women out there who secretly wish and fantasise about a life where they are treated as equal citizens, where learning skills doesn’t come as a privilege. There are women out there who strive day in and day out, fighting stereotypes, fighting abuses, and a million other kinds of hostile behaviours just because they have to make ends meet. And their only wish is to have the same opportunities as any other man in the world.


Mahwash Badar

The author is a clinical psychologist, a mum to two boys and permanently in a state of flux. She tweets @mahwashajaz_ (twitter.com/mahwashajaz_)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Raj – USA

    A few years ago, I was visiting San Jose and asked the hotel to call for a cab to take me to the airport. The cab came and I was a little surprised that the driver was a Sardarni. In US, there are a few female truck drivers also who drive big rigs on long hauls.

    About 5 years ago, when I visited Chennai I rode an auto rikshaw. I was surprised that the driver was a lady. You need strength to pull the handle to start the vehicle. It was evening time around 8 pm. and the lady driver told me that she drives the auto until 11 pm usually and at times till mid night too. She was not familiar with the place I wanted to go and stopped several times on the way to get directions from other taxi or auto rikshaw drivers. I like it when I saw her asking for directions from others. She would call them as “Anna” (meaning brother in tamil) and ask them for directions. I guess there would be more female drivers in Bangalore. Chennai is very safe for females even late in the evening.Recommend

  • Adpran

    In my place, Indonesia, there are many women who drive cars. But very few of them who work as taxi, bus, or truck driver. Because death threat?. No!. They never got death threat, even they get sympathy from their male colleagues and from people. It’s because people in my place understand, basically those women would not work as taxi, bus, or truck driver, if not forced by situation, like they must fulfill their children needs while they have no husbands. If they could get other job, they would choose other job.

    Ask girls in cities, “Do you want to drive car?”. I am sure, many of them would say yes. Then ask again, “Do you want to work as taxi driver?”. I am sure, not easy to find a girl who would say yes.

    So, female taxi drivers actually deserve to get sympathy and appreciation, not death threat. They are people who do not surrender to the hard situation in loving their families.

    I hope people in Pakistan can understand it.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    a “first” for Pakistan even though other countries very similar to us have females driving taxis and some even drive heavy transport vehicles. there is a female driver who even drives the ice road(I watched her on “Ice road truckers” telecast by the discovery channel). I recently read about female heavy transport drivers in Australia. Here is the link to the story


  • Hamidah Fawad

    When I was a kid I remember there used to be a school bus driver who was female. She used to fascinate me and I thought with time there would be more such women but unfortunately I haven’t seen any more such women in Karachi since then. I was pleasantly suprised to learn about this lady taxi driver from Islamabad. Kudos to herRecommend

  • sara

    first of all stop trying to write articles which give a pathetic and misleading picture.on any given day there are many female drivers on the streets,the law and constitution does not bar them from driving and traffic police have relaxed laws for female drivers than males. also females are encouraged to drive. except for a few backward conservative male dominant families. in the cities its not so. pakistan is waaay ahead of afghanistan and saudi arabia because our law does not stop women from driving. pakistani women/mendo not treat driving as luxury but a necessity, men work and females stay home and drive around kids to tuitions and school and do chores if they cant afford drivers in their cars. the middle class families have more female drivers in pakistan than the elites.so please dont compare us to afghanistan and saudi arabia we still treat our women with a bit more respect and treat them like humans occasionally.Recommend

  • fatma

    if females start driving our transport system we will perhaps have less sexually assaulted children who grow up to be homo and peadophiles perhaps? so i think female drivers in tax and buses as an idea should be promoted!!Recommend