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Column One

Taking license, turning heads

Women behind the wheel remain rare enough in Afghanistan to cause

October 10, 2009|Mark Magnier

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Karima Yousafzai jumps behind the wheel of her 1994 Toyota Corolla and heads into traffic, deftly negotiating around wannabe motocross champions, oblivious pushcart peddlers, a roadside herd of sheep and several contenders for the crazy-driver-of-the-year award. She takes little notice of the looks directed her way.

"I've stopped caring about the stares men give you," the 43-year-old university professor says. "I just ignore them."

A female driver in Afghanistan is something of a rare bird.

In the first six months of the fiscal year that began April 1, the number of driving permits issued to women in the Kabul area was up fourfold. That sounds great until you consider that officials issued just 180 licenses to women in the last 18 months, compared with 27,985 for men.

Men own the roads of Afghanistan, and many of them want it to stay that way. They say it is un-Islamic and culturally offensive for women to get behind the wheel.

Yousafzai, who teaches the Koran for a living, disagrees. The holy book makes no mention of internal combustion engines, automatic transmissions or driving restrictions on women, she says.

"When men say women aren't capable of driving, my response is, 'I'll challenge you any time,' " says Yousafzai, wearing a head scarf and dark glasses.

Afghanistan, a male-dominated Muslim society, has often discouraged women from participating in public life. That includes driving, especially from 1996 to 2001, when the fundamentalist Taliban government all but outlawed it. It is "against Afghan traditions and has a negative impact on the environment," the Taliban declared in May 2001.

After the Taliban was ousted at the end of that year, President Hamid Karzai pledged to respect women's rights. There was an initial jump in the number of female drivers, but tradition dies hard, and Karzai's promise has faltered.

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Men commonly contend that women shouldn't be subjected to the unpredictable Afghan traffic and that their security could be compromised, given all the violence.

"Imagine if a woman had an accident," says Abdul Habib, a 20-year-old student, strolling with two male friends. "Hundreds of men would gather around and curse at her. Then I'm sure she would cry.

"After that she'd probably call her brother or husband for help," he adds, to the amusement of his friends.

Freshta Nahad, 21, a Kabul University economics student, sees little humor in such jibes. "If men obeyed the law," she says, "we wouldn't have so many problems."

"Security's a problem all over Afghanistan," says Fatima Maisjadi, 17, a carpet weaver who has driven a few times off-road with her family. "Why blame it on women?"

At the Mamozai Driving Academy in the basement of a Kabul shopping center, founder and instructor Summer Gul Khan runs students through a tutorial in a grubby room with road sign posters and disemboweled car parts.

"Carburetor, drive shaft, engine block," says the instructor, tapping each component with a stick.

Mamozai was the country's first private school to offer driving classes to women, nearly a decade ago. During its first two years, under Taliban rule, there were just two female students. Both worked for charity organizations and would remove their burkas while in the classroom, then dive back under the all-encompassing garment before driving, peering through the small eye-slit to see the road.

Now 20% of his several thousand students each year are women, Khan says, although few of them drive regularly after getting their licenses.

"Their families aren't comfortable letting them," he says. "Maybe they'll only do it in emergencies, or for short trips."

Khan, who charges $70 for the course, thinks Afghan women and men are equally suited to driving. The problem is that society doesn't offer women much encouragement or opportunity to practice, so they often lack confidence. Many of the men who bad-mouth them are illiterate and feel threatened by women's (slowly) rising status, fearing that they will take away their driving jobs one day, he says.

Policeman Mohammad Usman Nawabi, 53, says women are better at driving than men because they drive defensively.

"Some of these guys seem to think they're doing loop-the-loops in an airplane," he says.

During Soviet occupation, women were encouraged to drive, at least in Kabul, the capital. Safer Ali, 70, a snack cart owner, says that in subsequent years, the main cities filled up with conservative migrants from the countryside who bridled at even limited freedoms for women.

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Zubaida Akbar, 19, a student and government employee, has been driving for less than a month. She doesn't have a license. "Getting a license isn't easy," she says. "You either have to know someone or pay money."

She started driving anyway, she says, because it was such a hassle to have a male relative drive her every evening to her visual arts classes.

"These roads are terrible," she notes, negotiating a 5-inch pothole.

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