Until a few decades ago, ladies driving cars was an uncommon phenomenon. Even then, women driving taxis was unheard of. That trend is soon changing. It is the courage of women like Heena Sheikh that cause those trends to change, writes Mallika Iyer
“Driving is not a girl’s job, my father chided!” laughs Heena Kausar Sheikh, reminiscing about how those around her had reacted when she had first alluded to her interest in driving for a living. “Relatives feared I would spoil the family name! Neighbours said ‘Do din ka bhoot hai…utar jayega (It’s a two-day madness…will disappear). But my mother stood by me like a rock!”
One amongst few lady drivers in the city driving fleet taxis, when Sheikh began a decade ago, lady taxi-drivers were even more of a rarity. “People often taunted me,” she remembers, “scoffed at me, laughed at me. But I persevered. Being the only earning member in a family of six, I had little choice!”
Sheikh speaks fluent English and drives her Etios confidently. She now works for Orix, a fleet taxi operator that provides taxi services to both men and women in corporates. Women working till late hours often prefer lady taxi-drivers and the trend is on the rise. Yet, there are bumps and hiccups on the road.
“I was once told that male customers had indicated they did not want lady drivers. Annoyed, I wanted to find out the reason. But when I made enquiries, the reason amused me,” she says with a giggle. “Some men claimed they felt awkward to sit in the back seat and have a lady drive them around! Some others said they couldn’t use foul language in conversations with colleagues and friends, in the presence of a lady driver!” It surprised Sheikh to note that the reasons were rooted in courtesy rather than bias!
Nevertheless, people have become more accepting of lady taxi-drivers. From customers to policemen, everyone seems to have an encouraging word or nod as she passes them by. “Things are slowly changing,” she says. “My father has come around too! Last year, we could pay for my sister’s wedding expenses because of the money I earn driving a taxi. All my mother’s medical expenses were also paid for because of my taxi. From my brothers’ education to the household expenses – it is the wheels of my taxi that turn the fortunes of my home! Nobody now has any complaint to make!”
Before driving a taxi, Sheikh earned her living by giving tuitions to children. But the income from that was insufficient. One day, she saw a lady driving a taxi and hurried behind her to make enquiries. Although Sheikh’s father had worked all his life as a driver, the thought that she too could drive for a living had not occurred to her until that moment! Her curiosity led her to For She, an initiative begun by Revathi Roy, to train women drivers. For a period of three months, Sheikh underwent training in driving, self-defence, English-speaking, customer-etiquette and so on. And then she was set to take the road.
“When I began For She,” says Founder Revathi Roy, “with the idea of women drivers for women customers – it was the first such initiative anywhere in the world! I began the initiative due to compulsion but I continue to train women drivers due to passion,” says Roy who has also launched Hey Deedee, a hyper-local last-mile delivery service start-up, run exclusively by women.
“I felt there was a need to create opportunities for girls – they too have dreams. Dreams to earn their own livelihood. Dreams to own a car. Dreams to be independent. I am happy to have been an instrument in realising those dreams. I have trained more than 1000 women drivers in 10 years,” says Roy with satisfaction. Roy’s own life has seen dramatic highs and lows, that led her from enjoying an affluent life to turning to the wheel for a living.
As Sheikh pulls out her car to pose for photographs, one cannot help but notice the quiet confidence. “Some of my cousins want to follow in my footsteps and drive too,” she says, smiling for the camera. It is her dream to buy a house, she says. A dream that she knows will take her many more years of driving.But even the journey thus far has been nothing short of commendable.
“I live in a conservative Muslim neighbourhood and have often been taunted for taking the unconventional path,” she says. “But today, as I park my taxi after a long day at work, I hear whispers of another kind. Mothers are reprimanding their young unemployed sons, telling them to notice how a girl is driving a taxi and feeding her family, even as they sit around wiling away their time joblessly! It gives me a quiet joy,” she smiles.
From subject of scorn to example-worthy of emulation… Sheikh has come a long way. But the journey hasn’t been easy. It has taken courage to dare to tear free of convention. A thick skin to ignore taunts, disregard stares and overcome doubts. Vision to dream and imagine. Turning heads. Setting trends. When women like Sheikh and Roy take to the wheel, it is not just a taxi they drive. They drive the future.