It was a cold day back in Kabul. Everywhere was whitened with heavy snowfalls. It was to the extent that one could barely take the risk of walking on the massive pieces of ices which had covered the roads. Like many other days, I was waiting for a bus to get me to school though I knew that the opportunity to get one on the rainy and snowy days of Kabul was rare. While freezing from the cold on a side of the road, I could see many men driving and sitting warm inside their cars while most women like me were waiting to find a means of transportation. In that situation, I wanted nothing more than having a car. But for me owning a car and driving it on that moment was like a lifelong dream.
I had been told that only men should drive. However, like many other Afghan women, I wanted to break that monopoly. I started looking for opportunities to learn how to drive. Then, my eyes were unexpectedly fixed to advertising posters anywhere until I found a driving coaching center in Kabul which was admitting female students as well. Learning how to drive and driving for women in a country like Afghanistan, which according to a global survey in 2011 (the guardian) is regarded as the world’s most dangerous place to be a woman, demonstrates a sign of women’s empowerment and a step ahead to gender equality. Moreover, it shows that people’s perception about women’s participation in public affairs is changing. Essentially, driving became a symbol of change for women in Afghanistan. I argue that through driving women become more independent and self-reliant, it provides a safe environment for women to do their daily activities, as well as it helps with the economic growth of families and the overall country.
Driving gives women a sense of independence. For me, from the moment I sat behind the steering wheel and started to drive gave me the feeling that I can stand by my own feet from now on. I could go anywhere I would like to without bothering my family members to take me there. I thought with myself that if I had a car while I was going to school, my mother was not compelled to take me there in the early mornings or late evenings. Driving caused me to reevaluate myself as an independent young woman who does not need the accompanying of a man in her travels. However, reaching to the conclusion about the sense of my independence was not an easy task. I had to fight with the perception of being reliant to a male guardian, which was imposed on me during Taliban regime on the name of culture and religion. I remembered that how on that time, I and other women like me were not even allowed to put our footsteps out of our homes without a male’s escorting.
Although the Taliban era had then passed, still there were some conservative religious groups that saw women’s driving as a concept opposed to Afghan culture and Islamic religion. In this case, women are obligated to rely on their male relatives or other outside drivers to take them to work, school or their other activities. For me, before learning to drive, while I was living in a distant village where there is few means of transportation, I usually asked my father to take me to school which was more than three hours walk per day. But this year when I went for a vacation in my village, I myself could drive a car. I remember once I drove my cousins to their school, the same school I used to go, and on the way I wished I had the opportunity to know driving and had a car while I was at school. So on that time I had not been forced to ask my father to drive me to school when there was nobody to accompany me by foot. Though I regret about the past and how I was dependent on my parents and my other family members, I was delighted about my ability to drive and my independence as a young woman.
Interestingly, I assumed that Afghanistan might be the only country where men have the monopoly of driving cars. But it was not the case. In Saudi Arabia, even driving for women is banned. According to a piece of news published in The Washington Post, the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia is not just a simple issue. Max Fisher, in the article “Saudi Arabia’s oppression of women goes way beyond its ban on driving,’ asserts that “It's part of a larger system of customs and laws that make women heavily reliant on men for their basic, day-to-day survival” (Fisher). Stricter than the situation of women in Afghanistan, women in Saudi Arabia are granted their basic rights through a male guardian who is the woman’s father, brother or husband. I believe that the ban on driving which otherwise gives women a sense of freedom and a quest for gender equality is to shut women’s mouth and prevent them from being independent beings. A research conducted by Stalin. R, a project and research assistant, in Sathyabama University, Chennai, India, shows that in the fast moving world, women became more independent to take decisions and capable of managing themselves in their own driving (28). He asserts that a car in not only a means of transportation anymore but also it reveals attitude and freedom for women (29). Despite difficulties that women face in a male-dominated society, driving is the way which gives them the opportunity to start an independent life.
Moreover, driving their own private automobiles helps women to stay safe and have a secure travel. Safety is one of the important factors for all women who travel from one place to another place for work or for other personal travels. Stalin. R states that “Women being by nature safety conscious and with economical decision making skill prefer their own means of transport” (28). It is no wonder that in the crowded city of Kabul public transit acts as a source of harassment for women. Most often you hear women complain of unwanted gazes and physical harassment on the cramped, crowded minibuses that are often the only method of public transport in the city. I remember many times that I rode on a bus or other public transportation and I witnessed women having uncomfortable rides or being harassed. Although it seems that public transportation has been gender-segregated in Afghanistan where women take a seat in front of vehicles and men at the back, still when transportation becomes too crowded, women are being harassed.
I am one of those women who have been harassed and felt unsafe on public transportation. Once, it was an early Friday morning and I had to go to an English coaching center. There were only two female passengers, I and another young woman sitting beside me in the first row and all other male passengers at the back. While suddenly, I felt something touching my backside from under the seat. It was the hand of a man sitting behind me. I screamed loud and slapped the man on the face while he put his head down and said nothing. “Why are you complaining in a public bus?” the driver shouted on me. “If you don’t want to be harassed, stay at your home and don’t come out.”
Women in Afghanistan have to fight with the cultural stereotypes and religious misconception and at the same time with the harassments on public transportations and on the streets. And for women who wonder how to do so, I offer my own experience of learning on how to drive and driving. My ability how to drive gave me the feeling of safety and that I would be safe inside my own car and that I could go anywhere I would like to go without being disturbed or harassed by strangers. When I could drive, the contemptuous glances of male strangers on the streets and their verbal abuses had no impact on me. I was no more afraid of the dirty hands that touched me on a road or slapped me on my backside. Learning how to drive in the city I call home, Kabul, where few women have the opportunity to drive, gave me the feeling of safety and that the streets belong to me as well.
My driving experience taught me that women driving can have a huge benefit on the economic growth of a country. A car is usually available for almost many middle class Afghans. But for decades only men could drive it. From the time I learnt how to drive, I was pleased with the fact that I could reduce from the cost my family and I pay for hiring taxis or drivers to drive our car. Most of the time when my father was out of the city, my mother had to pay for a driver to take her for shopping, visiting places or attending parties. But this year when I went home for summer vacation, I saw that I have made a change through my driving. My mom was not then required to hire a taxi and pay for it; instead I was driving my mom wherever she wanted to go.
Sara Bahai, the first female taxi driver in Afghanistan, does not only earns money to feed her family but she also acts as a role model for other women to work and be financially independent. According to Asghar Noor Mohammad, a reporter in Afghanistan, Sara besides being a cabbie driver is also a part time teacher in a school. The salary she gets from her part-time teaching which is around 90$ per month is not enough to support her family of ten members (A Woman). She has to work more to feed her family. Similarly, Stalin points out women working both inside and outside of their homes can increase the level of income for families (28). We can also say that when the level of income of a family is increasing, so does the income of the whole country.
Learning how to drive taught me that sitting behind a wheel acts as an indicator of women’s empowerment and moreover, it taught me of a greater knowledge that Afghan people’s ideologies especially of men are changing about women’s ability and their social. When I started driving on the streets of Kabul, I could notice more of happy and smiley faces than of unwanted gazes pointing towards me or other women drivers that I came to know in Kabul. I don’t say that there is no conservative person opposing women’s driving. There are disagreements but the general perspective of people is changing over time. I remember, once driving my family from one region to another, I got disturbed by a male driver. He hit our car and he was the one who wanted reparation for his car because I was a woman or what he believed a naïve driver. So, I was blamed according to him. When people gathered, they did not blame me as a naïve driver and regardless of gender concerns concluded that I was not responsible for the accident. “Look,” a man from the crowed said to the male driver, “Her car is damaged more than yours and it seems that you have hit on her car’s side.” But the male driver saying “No, it is her fault because women are not created to drive. And when they do, they cause accidents.” Then, while the crowds looking at me with their heads down tried to make the male driver understand that it is not the case in today’s world.