It’s 10:00 PM. I have just finished up at work. I open the Uber app on my phone and book a cab. The driver informs me he will be there in 10 minutes and asks me if I can wait. “I will wait,” I say. It’s now 10:20 PM. The driver isn’t here yet. “It’s okay, traffic must be quite bad. He will be here soon,” I naïvely tell myself. My phone pings with the dreaded notification – ‘Unfortunately, your driver had to cancel the trip. Please request a new ride and we’ll get you moving shortly.’
My emotions oscillate between panic, fear, terror and settle on dread. Does my reaction seem extreme? It isn’t. Here’s why:
- I am a woman.
- I don’t have a vehicle of my own. I need to use a cab, auto, or bus to get home.
- Cab drivers and auto drivers are infamous for their habit of rejecting trips at night, a time when their services are crucial.
This is what hundreds of thousands of women go through each day in India while making routine trips to and from work, college, and other places.
A significant number of women in India face harassment while using or waiting for public transport. According to a policy brief from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, 51% of women surveyed in Delhi in 2010 stated that they had faced sexual harassment inside public transport and 42% had faced harassment while waiting for public transport. Other states don’t fare better. In a similar study in Kozhikode in 2010, 69% of the women surveyed said that they had faced sexual harassment while using public transport and 71% of women surveyed said they faced such harassment while waiting for public transport.
The impact of this plagues women of all ages, reducing access to both quality education and work opportunities. Research by Girija Borker, an economist with the World Bank, shows that female students enrolling at Delhi University were willing to choose a lower quality college (~8.5 ranks lower than they were eligible for) if the route to the institution seemed safer. According to the Asian Development Bank, women may turn down employment opportunities far from home in case transport systems don’t help them travel to and from work in time to complete household duties.
In the same study concerning Delhi University, female students were also willing to travel an additional 40 minutes on a route they felt was safer, while male students were only willing to travel 4 additional minutes for the same level of safety.
Encouraging women to drive themselves seems like an easily achievable solution that could possibly reduce some of these cases. I assumed that the number of women with driver’s licenses would be significant given that 50% of Indian households are middle class and India was the fourth largest market for automobiles in 2019. However, data from the government presents stark disparities in the access to the skill of driving. According to data from the Road Transport Year Book for 2016-17, men hold 92.3% of the valid licenses (as of 31 March 2017), while women hold a meagre 7.7% nationally*.
*This data excludes licenses issued in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Daman and Diu since gender split up of licenses is unavailable for both states and the union territory.
This implies that for every 100 people with driver’s licenses, 92 of them are men and 8 are women. One thing to note is that this is not the number of women actually driving, this is just the number of women who have driver’s licenses. The actual percentage of women on the road may actually be much lower. This stark divide is often supported by people including friends and family. If I had a rupee for each time I was told women were worse drivers than men, I’d be so rich that I wouldn’t need to work for the rest of my life!
Research has proven that women are actually better drivers than men, with women less likely to get tickets for reckless driving and drunk driving and get into fatal accidents. This does not stop the incessant commentary women receive about driving. In 2019, the president of a major tyre brand said that he believed the biggest problem facing female drivers was changing tyres since women are “not made” for the task.
Another problematic practice that is quite rampant amongst the social circle I belong to is the practice of the parents of a bride gifting a vehicle at the time of their daughter’s marriage—a vehicle which is supposedly for the use of “the couple.” Here’s the thing though, most of these women don’t have driver’s licenses and in the off chance that they do, they usually aren’t comfortable driving. Essentially, these parents are gifting their sons-in-law vehicles, not their daughters. I am not going to comment about the practice of gifting a vehicle since it is none of my business. This is the issue I have with it though—how hard would it be for all these parents to encourage their daughters to drive? If they really wanted to empower their daughters, they would encourage them to actually use the vehicles they are gifting them.
Driving is one of the most important life skills that women can be taught. Contrary to popular belief, cooking is not crucial. You can watch a couple of cooking videos and rival Sanjeev Kapoor’s skills. Being able to drive means you aren’t dependent on your father, brother, partner, colleague or anyone else to get around. The kind of freedom and opportunities that being able to drive will provide you are immense. It doesn’t matter what you learn to drive – cycle, scooter, bike, car – all of these mean you can travel alone without being dependent on men.
I will be honest – I was quite afraid of accidents when I started driving. I failed my first driver’s test too, meaning I must have done incredibly poorly. After two years of driving, I’m still uncomfortable with dealing with cops and I still make mistakes. This is something that no one will tell you – people make mistakes while driving all the time and it’s okay; all that matters is that you go out and drive again the next day!
Asma M, writing under a pseudonym, is in her mid-twenties and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Management and is based in Chennai. While she would like to see gender equality in her lifetime, she knows that is a far fetched dream and wants to do her part to at least achieve some semblance of gender equality. You can find her on Instagram.