Women-on-wheels take India forward

They don’t shy away from partnering with commercial aggregators like Uber and Ola to exemplify driving as a sign of empowerment, reports Chhavi Bhatia

This month puts a lot of glare on women achievers in different fields, mapping progress, celebrating triumphs in a society where despite its sheen of being modernist, patriarchal faultlines run deep. We pride over the accomplishers, seeking solace in their success stories, however small, because they offer hope that an equal world is not a utopia, that when #EachforEqual trends, women across the globe are working to realise it.

The World Economic Forum has also centred the campaign #EachforEqual around six major areas — championing women forging tech innovation, applauding equality for women athletes, forging inclusive workplaces so women thrive, supporting women to earn on their own terms, empowering them through health education, and Increasing visibility for female creatives.

The bottomline remains “forging equality in these areas”. The campaign takes into account the pivotal role women play in influencing and inspiring, upholding the real cause of feminism that does not rest on misandry but bats for equality. And when some glass ceilings are broken as a consequence, well, it always has to be raised a toast to! Just like women cab drivers who have made into this male-dominated bastion solely on their own, emerging as the unsung face of gender parity.

While they remain an under-represented fraternity in this field, these ‘women-on-wheels’ have not shied away from partnering with commercial aggregators like Uber and Ola to exemplify driving as a sign of empowerment. Tehelka brings to you their stories from pan-India:

Raji Akka, Chennai, Uber auto driver

46 years old Raji Akka has been driving her own auto in and around Perambur for over 20 years now. Whether it is the middle of the night or an insufferably hot afternoon, she has never refused a ride to a woman. “Even after my 8-9 hour shift has ended, I take up rides when women have informed me about their travel in advance. I want women to feel safe travelling at odd times in the night,” she says. A graduate in Philosophy, she fell in love with an auto-driver in the village, and married him. The family shifted to Chennai after the 1998 bomb blasts in Coimbatore which affected them personally. “We had to rebuild our lives in a new city. My husband started driving an auto. I, however, could not find a job despite my qualification and experience. After several failed interviews, I decided to start driving an auto for a living just like my husband,” Akka shares.

Over two decades, Akka has fallen in love with her work. “I like that my job has given me recognition and that people in the city know me and lovingly call me Akka. It has never been about the money for me but about making women feel secure. I also give free auto driving lessons to women interested in joining this profession to motivate and skill them.

However, her ride has not been all smooth, having faced harassment from men. “I have received support from many people who view me as an inspiration, but I have also had a few bad experiences with men who have made inappropriate remarks at me and even stalked me to scare me. But I have never let all this deter me.”

She says further, “A typical reaction when they a see a woman driver is judge us as bad drivers. Women passengers are always more supportive. Some male drivers often pass uncomfortable remarks and try to overtake as well but with time, I have learned how to handle all types of situations.”

Rani, Bhubaneshwar, Uber’s first transgender driver-partner

“I used to earlier sing in trains and earn money. People would often run away from me, make faces at me or look down at me. I always wanted a real job and then started driving an auto despite all the remarks that people made at me,” Rani shares. “Soon after, I reached out to Uber and it gave me the platform to work as a cab driver. For the first time, I felt proud of myself and my profession. I felt like I had a real job.” It has been a year now since she has been driving with the cab aggregator. “I am the first transgender to work as a cab driver. Mostly all passengers are always shocked to see a transgender cab driver but I feel the country and people’s thinking is changing as with time, people are motivating and do not view us as just beggars or outcastes on the road. Positive change towards the transgender community is being witnessed,” shares Rani who now also works with the Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation.

Rinku Singh, Delhi Uber Cab driver

This graduate in Political Science and History from Delhi University, has been driving an Uber for the past one year. The 23-year-old got into the profession to fund her education. “I could not get a job without a degree and Uber helped me earn pocket money. I utilised that money to pay my fee. I was happy with the work because flexible timings meant I could focus both on my studies as well as work.”

Singh’s family, meanwhile, did not take her choice of work kindly. Belonging to a strictly conservative Rajput family, they were abhor to the idea of a girl working and that too as a cab driver. “My family even forced me to stay at home for days. But I am an automobile enthusiast who always wanted to drive. It took a lot of convincing from my side for them to allow me to drive professionally. With time, they have become very supportive.”

Her one year is marked with good experiences with passengers –both male and female. “No man has ever passed remarks at me. Everyone gives me their blessings and that feels very good. I want all girls to believe in themselves because that is the most important lesson. Lots of people think that male passengers who sit with me might have bad intentions. But people should know that not everyone is bad.”

Sushmita, based out of Durgapur drives with Ola. A homemaker, wife and mother, she has been juggling responsibilities with aplomb for a while now. In her own words, having trained with Ola boosted her self-belief that she can take on the world. The respect and recognition that came her way only fuelled her ambitious drive. Buoyed by the newly discovered confidence, Sushmita also started managing a ‘women hostel’ in the city on her own. “The flexible working hours and her indomitable drive to do something different and meaningful in life have enabled me to handle all roles seamlessly,” she says.

Sushmita wanted to do something that left a mark, but society stereotypes pushed her towards a conventional family life, forcing her to put her dreams of being financially independent on hold. When she decided to partner with Ola, the 45-year-old faced disapproval from her family, but did not let it be a discouragement.

Harshika Pandya, Ola Bike’s first woman driver partner, is also Surat’s only female bike driver partner — an accomplishment she is proud of. An independent woman,Pandya lives with her mother and other family members, she took to driving as her calling with a supporting family who encouraged her decisions. In times when unsafe cities is a hotly debated topic, she realises the significance of being a woman driver partner and the responsibilities that automatically come to her because of the role. With most of my customers being students, I am proud that their families feel more secure with her at the wheel and commend her bold efforts, which motivates me to keep doing more,” says Pandya.

Harshika is a post graduate in journalism and worked in the finance sector previously. The 37-year-old left her corporate job of 9 years when she decided to pursue her ambition of becoming an entrepreneur and fulfil her dreams to travel.