“The best protection any woman can have … is courage.”
– Elizabeth Cady Stant
Even now, when it is not common to find lady taxi drivers in India, it is my proud privilege to present Sara Bahai, who fought against all odds and dared to become a lady taxi driver in the male-dominated terror struck Afghanistan.
Sara has very dark memories of her childhood. She recalls many tears and heartache from the years of war and persecution and her father was killed in action 36 years ago. Growing up, it was easier for Sara to live as a boy and act as a tomboy because it was so difficult being a female in a Taliban-run country. “As a kid, I was a real tomboy. I used to wear boy's clothes. No one could tell I was a girl. But my parents were very supportive of my personality and gave me the freedom to live my life as I wanted. I was very lucky to have parents like that.”
Sara never had any interest in dolls growing up and always played with her brother's toy cars instead. “I used to make cars with match boxes because my father could not afford many toys,” Sara remembers, who has never worn the all-blue Burka the Taliban had made compulsory for women on the rare occasions they left their home.
While the majority of the country celebrated the fall of the Taliban in 2002, Sara quickly signed up for a two-week professional driving course with the Chief Officer of the Traffic Police and applied for a license to legally start driving her red Toyota Corolla DX.Then, Sara decided to make money for her family and become a full-time taxi driver.
And when Sara finally got behind a wheel and drove a car for the first time she felt as if she was flying. She said: 'The first time I drove a car I felt as if someone had given me wings. I cannot express the feeling; 'it was beautiful'. It was my neighbor's car and I drove for just a few miles around our neighborhood but it was enough - I was hooked. After that, I was determined to learn to drive and buy my own car.'
To attain her driving license, Sara took a class with 30 other people, all of whom were men. They were always ready to vent vitriol for her. But, that did not deter her, and she was among the 10 people in that class to finally get a license.
Sara said: “When women get into my car and see a woman driver they start smiling and giggling, they say they're very proud of me. I think they're glad at least one woman is living an independent life. In my taxi, they talk freely. They feel comfortable and talk about families, husbands and crack jokes.” But not all Sara's customers are as accepting.
Narrating her mixed experiences Sara said, “My male customers are never happy with me. They believe it's very un-Islamic for a woman to drive - they still have very primitive thinking. They accuse me of setting a bad example for women and nasty things come out of their mouths. But I do not get depressed; I tell them exactly what I think. A woman driving a car is not nonreligious and their opinions are ludicrous.” When people first saw Sara as a taxi driver they laughed at her. But it did not deter her. She was confident about her decision. She wanted to show the world that Afghanistan women are not born to just get married and have children. They can work, look after themselves and be independent too.
Sara Bahai has dedicated her life to caring for her mother Bibi, 60, to helping her sister care for her seven children, after the death of her husband in 2000 during the war against the Taliban. When asked about the reason for not getting married, she said “I've had many men ask me to marry them but I've never agreed. I have no regrets. I broke the marriage rule in my family because there was no one to feed us or make money so I had to step in as the strong one.” Amongst Sara's six sisters and seven brothers, Sara is the only one not to marry. But Sara has watched her sisters in very unhappy marriages. So much so Sara adopted her sister’s two sons, now 12 and 18 years old and studying in school because her husband was a drug addict and couldn't provide for them. She does not believe in taking chances with her safety, so she keeps a loaded hunting rifle at her shanty in a poor neighborhood, at all times.
She doesn't even pay a mechanic to check her car; she does all the repairs herself. And makes, even more, money by buying and selling second-hand cars. Sara admits she has been very lucky to have never faced any threats from the Taliban, but she knows many women who are too scared to take one step outside their home.
Sara is now determined to contribute as much as she can to the prosperity of Afghan women - and she is doing that by starting her own driving school. She already has three female students learning to drive and she is getting more requests every day. She dreams of having a bustling driving school generating thousands of Afghan female taxi drivers of the future.
Besides trailblazing a path for women on Afghan roads and supporting her family, Bahai is also an active human rights activist. “When I get a call, I have to get the scene as soon as possible and solve the problem,” says Bahai, who works with a coalition of human rights groups in Balkh Province. “This car can be of a lot of help for me. Helping others with family-related issues is one of the reasons why I bought this car.” Still, she claims to have saved several divorces and to have helped many women study.
When asked to give a message for Afghan women she said: “stand up for yourselves, set goals and achieve them, and help to make Afghanistan a happy place to live.”
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