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CONTROLLING THE ‘STEERING’ OF THEIR LIFE…

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By Erum Noor Muzaffar
Tue, 04, 21

Of late, online cab services in urban cities, like Karachi and Lahore, have provided job opportunities to a number of women drivers. In this regard You! talks to a few women cab drivers…

Women taxi drivers were unheard of in Pakistan till the 1980s. It was totally considered a male domain until Zahida Kazmi broke the chain and hailed as Pakistan’s first female taxi driver in the late ’80s. Out of necessity, Kazmi decided to get behind the wheel and started driving a taxi in Rawalpindi. Her late husband, who himself was a taxi driver, had taught her how to drive. Her journey was like a bumpy road as during those days a woman driving a taxi was a strange phenomenon. However, Kazmi remained steadfast against all odds and set an example for other women to follow suit.

Fast forward to today, women driving cabs on the roads is no big deal now and people have started accepting women taxi drivers like normal drivers but there is still no escape from ogling and lecherous looks. In a bid to provide safe and convenient transportation for women, Paxi Pink Taxi start-up was launched in Karachi in 2017. It’s the first women-exclusive taxi service – for women and by women so that female passengers could go about their business comfortably without facing any kind of harassment. The aim of this initiative was basically women empowerment and to provide them jobs so they could support their families. In 2018, the service commenced in other cities too.

Aasia Abdul Aziz, one of the pioneer women drivers of Careem, drives her car in Karachi. Reuters

Then an online cab service called Careem started hiring women drivers (aka captains) in 2017 with a perspective of giving them more job opportunities. In Karachi and Lahore where the demand for secure taxis was particularly strong among women, the induction of women drivers by the company was well received. Launched in Dubai in 2012, Careem has a global force of 90,000-plus drivers and more than four million users registered through its mobile app. The service was introduced in Pakistan in 2016.

Recently, the company has released its 5 yearly trend (2016-2021) showing that women are on the ‘MOVE’ in Pakistan, taking 20 million rides travelling a distance of 250 million km.

Everyday life is challenging for women to break stereotypes, smash gender norms and claim public spaces, however, with the advent of online cab service in Pakistan there has been improvement in accessibility towards a reliable and safe means to mobility. Today, the company has more than 1586 female captains registered who have an average rating of 4.83. Women captains have covered a distance of 4,500,000 kilometres taking more than 570,000 rides.

So, what’s life like for women cab drivers? What kind of challenges do they face? How does society perceive them? In this regard You! talks to few women cab drivers who share their journey with this scribe…

‘You need to face the society boldly’

— Rukhsana Aslam

Hailing from a middle class family of Karachi, Rukhsana Aslam is a single parent. She separated from her husband some 7 years ago. She is singlehandedly raising her son who is 9 now. She is an educated woman and has a degree in physiotherapy. From 2014 to 2016, she had an online business of accessories and also delivered food from home. In 2017, she changed her course of action and decided to ride taxi and worked for Pink Taxi for a brief period before joining Careem in 2018.

“Driving is my passion and since it’s my bread and butter too I really enjoy it,” says Aslam. However, she has noticed that despite living in the 21st Century, people still look down upon women cab drivers. “Sometimes male passengers’ derogatory remarks demoralise me and I want to quit. But then I start working with a new zeal. If I have to earn, I may as well work and should not worry about what people say. My parents have raised me like a boy and that’s why I was able to stand on my own feet and face society boldly. Even when I separated, my parents knew that it wasn’t my fault. I am lucky to have a supportive family. You see, when your family is with you. It makes a world of difference,” she observes.

“Though I earn well but since the pandemic, it has become difficult for me to meet both ends. Last year for four months, cab service was suspended and it was a tough phase for all of us but now service has resumed. I am happy that I work for a company that believes in giving equal opportunities to women and makes no discrimination between its male and female captains,” comments Aslam.

‘A mother fights many battles’

— Saeeda Jabeen

53-year-old Saeeda Jabeen is a widow. She has a son and a daughter. She lives in a rented house in Township, Lahore. She has been struggling all her life. “When my husband passed away, I was shattered but then I had to collect myself for the sake of my children who were very young at that time. My husband was the sole bread earner and my family was not supportive of me so I knew that I had to do something in order to raise my kids. Since I was not educated, driving seemed the best option for me. I think when it comes to survival, you are ready to take up any job, you avail every opportunity whether big or small. I learnt driving from a driving school in Lahore. Then I became a driving instructor. I taught driving to new girls for 18 years. Then about two years back I joined Careem as captain,” narrates Jabeen.

According to Jabeen she never cared what society would think of her. “People talk but nobody comes and feeds you, so better to focus on your work. I feel proud to call myself a taxi driver. It is nothing to be embarrassed of. I think every job is honourable if you are working honestly and with dedication,” elucidates Jabeen who has raised her kids independently with no support from her family. “This society is very cruel and a mother has to fight many battles on different fronts. I endured many hardships for the sake of my children since I wanted to give them a good education and better life. They have grown up now. When it comes to raising your kids, you need to be strong and take daring steps,” states Jabeen.

So, how does it feel working in a male-dominated society? “It all depends on you. When I was a driving instructor, I had to face men on the roads, now that I am a captain I still have to deal with men. So it wasn’t challenging or new for me to work in a male-dominated society. The good part is that people’s mentality towards working women is changing gradually. My experience with my customers is a happy one. Most of my passengers (male and female) are from educated families and they treat me with respect. I have never faced any kind of harassment so far,” replies Jabeen who drives a taxi 12 hours a day. “It is my full-time job. My duty timings are from 8am to 8pm. I don’t earn much but my income is sufficient enough to run my house. My son drives a rickshaw. He is married now and supports his own family. My daughter is studying in college; I want to marry her off soon so I try to save some money every month for her marriage,” explains Jabeen.

Jabeen feels strongly about women empowerment. “My message to women is that they should not be afraid of society. If you want to achieve something in life then you better be prepared to face criticism. People talk in any case, so don’t worry about them and focus on your desired goal. When you see your kids hungry, then feeding them becomes your priority - not what people will say,” emphasis Jabeen.

‘Woman drivers are equally competent as male drivers’

— Sitara Shabbir

“I am a banker by profession. I am single. In these times of inflation it’s not possible for one man to run the house. In our family everyone works in order to meet our expenses. I wanted to make good use of my spare time so I opted to become a captain in Careem,” tells Shabbir who is based in Lahore. “When I informed my family about my decision, they did not stop me from driving a cab. My family is very accommodating.” she adds.

“Driving is my part-time job. I drive a cab in the evenings. I have been driving since many years and I have never had to face any kind of harassment. In a nutshell, people’s attitude towards me is positive. Sometimes I have to deal with difficult customers as well but then there is nothing perfect in this world so I take it in my stride.

“All over the world, one sees women driving cabs on the roads, so why can’t they drive in Pakistan? I think women are no less than men when it comes to capabilities. Women drivers are as skilled as their male counterparts. Many women in our society are reluctant to travel with male drivers, especially when they are alone, so being with female drivers is a great source of relief and comfort for them,” stresses Shabbir.

‘There is nothing a woman cannot do’

— Asma Shakeel

45-year-old widow Asma Shakeel lives in Nazimabad, Karachi. She is the sole breadwinner of her family. She has been working with Careem since the last 4 years. Besides being a Captain, she is also an entrepreneur and runs her online food business. She also works as a part time tailor and a tuition teacher. A normal day in her life starts early in the morning when she drives around the city as a Captain picking up customers for several hours. Then she delivers the food for her online business and then she uses her 13 years of teaching experience to give home tuitions to her students.

While sharing her story with this scribe Shakeel says, “I did BSC from Rana Liaquat Ali Khan College of Home Economics. I was a housewife but then when my husband had a massive heart attack I had to take a bold step of coming out of my comfort zone. I did a Montessori diploma course so that I could get a decent job. When I was doing my Montessori diploma course, my youngest daughter was only two years old and it was a herculean task to take care of the little children and study simultaneously. Then I joined a school in 2006. I learned computers while I was in school. I am a self-taught person. Then my husband passed away in 2013. It was a very tough time for me but I continued working. Some unfavourable circumstances forced me to resign from school. I had to do something for my kids. I knew driving. I had the car. So, after much contemplation, I decided to become a cab driver some four years back. I had to work really hard to send my 3 kids to school and colleges.”

What kind of challenges she faced being a woman driver? “Initially, it wasn’t easy. I was afraid of going to unknown places and dealing with strangers but over a period of time I gained confidence. Navigation app really helped me in reaching different destinations. Now, I know almost every part of Karachi,” illuminates Shakeel.

“The best part about this job is that it is in your own hands. You are your own captain. You can go offline whenever you want and you can come online whenever it suits you. It’s an excellent part-time option for women like me. Most of the time I meet nice male customers; they address me as ‘baji’ and ‘apa’,” adds Shakeel. Women like Asma Shakeel are a source of inspiration for many women hoping to earn a living and being empowered. “One should work in his/her chosen field regardless of what others think about it. When you are in need, no one will come to rescue you so you have to rely on your own self and skills to earn a decent living,” concludes Shakeel.

Erum Noor Muzaffar is the editor of You! magazine. She can be contacted at: [email protected]