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12 Apr, 2010 02:45

Kabul women drivers’ emancipation

It’s not easy to drive the choked streets of Kabul, littered with fruit sellers, beggars and donkey carts. Drivers are used to the chaos, but many are unnerved by the sight of women behind the wheel.

Faiqa Jawid feels at home in the driver’s seat of her battered Toyota. She’s been navigating these streets since she was twelve – but only got her licence recently, since the decade-long ban on women drivers ended.

She told RT: “I couldn’t drive when the Taliban was in power because they forbid it. But they’re not Muslim. I come from a religious family and my father always encouraged me to learn to drive. It does not say in our religion that a woman cannot drive, so now I’m teaching my daughters.”

Thirty years ago, when the Soviets were in Afghanistan, women drove many of the trolley buses here. But years of civil war and Taliban rule mean very few have the skill today.

Abdul Hamid Osmani opened his driving school four years ago, after receiving Russian training.
He’s since taught more than 140 women, and says most are doctors and lawyers returning from years in exile with a more modern outlook than the families they left behind.

“The main problem facing women drivers is security. If they leave Kabul city, it is very dangerous for them,” he said, adding “The villagers hate women drivers, so if they have some kind of mechanical problems, most people won’t stop to help them.”

The only women he’s ever turned away are those in full-length burkhas.

But it’s almost impossible to drive wearing burkhas. Not only is it hot, but it’s really difficult to see in front of you, let alone through the side and review mirrors.

Zakia Popalzai, a thirty-year-old math and physics teacher, is alone among her female friends in learning to drive, spurred on by her husband’s support.

“I get a very amusing reaction from male drivers. It’s as if they’ve never seen a woman driving before in their lives. Sometimes they get angry, sometimes they laugh at me. Of course, if the Taliban sees me, they’ll cut off my head,” Zakia stated.

Even so, more and more women are getting their wheels – with or without a license. But the numbers are still dismally low – just 180 women got their license last year compared to nearly 30,000 men.

“It’s a good idea for women to drive, but not in today’s situation with kidnappings and bad security,” one man said.

Another believes “it’s good for women to drive because they are so careful when they cross the roads – they don’t break the laws like men.”

However, a third claims “Driving is for men – women are for housework.”

While some Afghan men are still far from ‘giving way’ to ladies in the driving lane, to many here it’s a sign that women’s rights are steering in the right direction.