In many parts of the world, driving like a girl takes guts. Women are discouraged and even forbidden from driving by philistine laws and codes. Not surprisingly, it’s harsh to be a woman in such societies – let alone think about getting around on your own.
And yet, there’s some good news, a twinkle of hope from New Delhi, India. If you’re a woman looking to improve your prospects by learning to drive, you’re in luck. Sakha Consulting has a special car service to provide safe transportation for women, by women.
This is the same New Delhi where just before New Year’s, a female medical student was gang-raped and later died. It’s a society notorious for its callous treatment of women.
So having women on the road at the wheel of a car, whether a cab or a private car, is an unexpected but sane strategy. These lady drivers have chutzpah – not only do they have to cope with the stifling congestion on the mean streets, they also have to deal with the threat of road violence from male cabbies, who have been openly hostile to their female competitors.
The whole notion was the brainchild of Azad Foundation, an NGO that works with disadvantaged women. Normally, these women’s career prospects were limited to factories or working as domestic servants. They’re from the slums, from the area’s poorest families. To work as a cab drivers, they start by becoming versed in driving skills over an eight to ten-month course. Then, to prepare these fearless females for physical confrontations, they’re taught self-defence by the women’s wing of the local police department. And, probably for the first time in their lives, they get up close and familiar with their legal rights as women.
Meena Vadera of the Azad Foundation, wanted to empower women and make the roads safer for them. She found that the women changed significantly during their training. “You can see it in their body language, in their speech, in the way they negotiate. It is a small step into a very different world. Learning to drive is like learning to swim; once you are over the early fear, it makes you feel powerful.”
Sakha, an offshoot of the Azad Foundation, has a fleet of about 50 women chauffeurs, and 10 women working as cabbies. Cabs must be booked four hours in advance, and some drivers understandably prefer not to drive at night. But with more Indian women travelling alone, working late hours and socializing in the evening with friends, the market is there. And it makes sense in a city infamous for its record of rape, that if you’re a woman, riding a cab with a woman driver is a lot safer than driving with a male. In fact, men are not allowed in Sakha cabs unless a woman passenger is present.
Female cabbies are also earning a decent wage, starting at about $110 monthly, and can earn over $200 per month. That’s almost twice as much as they would have earned in textile mills or other jobs. Many of them have had to overcome dissent against their taking up their profession not only by society at large, but from their own families. Traditional gender roles have a stranglehold in India, but these women drivers are bravely striking out and finding it’s worth the struggle.
Meena Vadera sums it up by saying, “Our mandate is to work with underprivileged women to help them make the transition from ‘I cannot’ to ‘I can.’”