A spike in women drivers
"The driver is not here. Who will take the children to school?" asked Tahmina's husband. "I will drive them today," she says, surprising the whole family with the news that she has been secretly learning how to drive.
Tahmina, 65, former school teacher, shares her story about learning to drive when she was 33. For her, it was more of a challenge to be overcome than a necessity. "My chauffeur would teach me how to drive our jeep and within eight to nine days I was on the road driving confidently. I would take my children to school, do the groceries and go to work," says Tahmina. She further mentions how the roads back then were safer and easier to navigate compared to recent traffic and congestion-filled conditions.
Dr Zareen Khair, 60, country manager of an NGO, talks about how she was inspired to drive. "I would watch a Pakistani drama and watch the main actress drive her own car. I felt driving my own vehicle would give me a sense of empowerment and confidence," she shares. "I learned to drive in a driving school in Dhanmondi. The first day I started to learn, I wanted to give up that very second, but I saw a much elderly woman driving in front of me and that inspired me to continue."
These stories of women who started driving 20-25 years ago fascinated everyone back then. But with time, Bangladesh has seen an increase in the number of women drivers. Although it is increasing at a slow pace, it is good to note that Bangladeshis have been showing a more positive and accepting attitude towards these changes. There are both women learners and instructors at driving schools these days – a sight that was uncommon even a few years ago.
However, some problems still do arise. Zoya Rahman, 23, a university student, acquired her driving license recently, after waiting for a long time. She shares that the lengthy process makes it undesirable for drivers to try and get a license. Although she learned how to drive in Dhaka, she prefers to drive when she is out of Bangladesh.
"My whole family was very happy when I learned to drive. Usually, I prefer to not depend on my chauffeur and drive myself to meet family and friends. But most of the time it becomes a hassle for me. Male drivers give me awkward stares and this disrupts my concentration while driving. The other day, a chauffeur tried to overtake my car while passing comments on me. Now my mother restricts me from driving alone," says Zoya. She expresses further concerns regarding safety issues. She once got into a situation where she was followed by a car at night which caused her mother to prohibit her from driving at night. She believes if more women drive cars in Bangladesh, it would normalise the situation.
Whilst this remains an alarming issue, Tahmina adds that she never faced any sort of harassment from drivers on the streets. "Rather I am respected and drivers let me pass through as soon as they see a woman driving," she shares.
More and more women are seeking out schools to learn driving. One of the training centres, Dhaka Driving Training Center in Mohammadpur, provides a 30-class course to learn how to drive. Although all of their instructors are male, they still have 10-12 women enrolled who learn driving. "We provide all the facilities needed to make women feel comfortable," says Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Director, Dhaka Driving Training Center.
Another driving institution, BRAC Driving School, currently has two women instructors. Instructors in this school have to undergo a strict process of learning for three months and later complete an internship under BRAC to fully qualify as an instructor. The school enrols about 30 women every month and about 25 percent of them are professionals while the rest learn driving for personal use.
"I always felt as though driving liberates a woman and boosts her confidence. That confidence definitely reflects in your work. I remain stress-free when I go to work as we have special facilities for self-driven cars but I worry when I go shopping or run errands. The possibilities of my car parts being stolen scares me," shares Dr Zareen Khair. Her husband and parents supported her throughout her journey of self-empowerment. "In fact, when we would have family events, I would be the one driving the car and always receive awkward stares from passers-by," she adds.
"Previously, I used to drive every day, but now I rarely drive. I can barely find any parking space these days. Parking is a big hassle for not just women drivers but for everyone. Besides, if the construction works in Dhaka were better planned, it would free up more space for parking. Moreover, I feel driving is a waste of time because I will eventually be stuck in traffic for a long period of time," says Tahmina.
Women are now more encouraged to drive cars for both professional and personal use. They have always been into driving although it was not as widely highlighted before. If you are a woman and are having second thoughts about driving, don't fret as Bangladesh is stepping up its driving game!