Herat Women in the Driving Seat

Rising numbers of female drivers despite widespread opposition and harassment in conservative city.

Herat Women in the Driving Seat

Rising numbers of female drivers despite widespread opposition and harassment in conservative city.

Wednesday, 29 September, 2010

In the long queue of traffic waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection in Herat, one car is attracting an unusual amount of attention. Passers-by stop and stare at the nondescript, slightly battered Suzuki.

The reason is simple – behind the wheel sits Soraya, a 26-year-old student who is one of a still tiny but growing number of women daring to drive in this western Afghan city.

Soraya, who keeps her headscarf tightly wrapped to avoid any charges of immodesty, is used to being stared at, and worse. The numerous dents in her car were made by young men who attacked the vehicle and called her names for daring to flout cultural norms.

In the three months that she has been using the car to take her the three kilometres between home and university, her family has been lobbied by other relatives to stop her driving.

“My family love me and they wouldn’t stop me driving because of pressure from our relatives,” Soraya said. “The main challenge comes from prejudiced, rude young men. I have to close the car windows even in hot weather so as to avoid hearing their insults and to be safe from harassment.”

Soraya’s father, Farid Ahmad Mohammadi, 46, said he had as much confidence in his daughter as in his son.

“What our relatives say about my daughter driving is of no consequence to me,” he said. “What’s important to me is her development.”

Despite such opposition, the number of female drivers is rising fast in Herat, a province known for its high levels of culture and education, as well as its conservatism.

Herat provincial traffic police say the number of women taking driving lessons so far this year is 60 per cent higher than last year. Hezatullah Hezat, the head of driving license distribution, told IWPR that 600 licenses had been issued to women in the province so far this year.

Driving licenses are awarded after a test that follows three weeks of theoretical lessons and a week of practice on the road.

Emphasising that there was no legal obstacle to women driving, Hezat said, “The women have displayed intelligence in the theoretical lessons, but they’ve had some problems with the practical part because they don’t have the experience”.

Nuriya, 30, got her driving license three months ago and, like Soraya, faces regular harassment.

Noting that women were banned from driving when Herat’s former governor Ismail Khan was in power, she said most of the harassment came from conservative clerics or members of armed factions, because “these people do not want women driving”.

She is adamant that nothing will make her give up this new-found freedom, saying, “Even if the problems get worse, I will not give in to the unfortunate views of biased, conservative people. I will fight for my rights.”

While Nuriya accuses police of not doing enough to prevent the abuse of female drivers, Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Afghan police’s Western Zone, told IWPR that seven young men had been arrested in the past month for attacking women’s cars.

He said police dealt with such cases by demanding a written guarantee of good behaviour from the offender’s family, followed by a fine if he was caught again, and a prison term for a third offence.

“Police investigations indicate that they fall into two groups – first, the kind of anti-social individuals who pester women in every country, and second, the religious extremists,” Ahmadi said, adding that police officers were sent out whenever complaints were made of harassment.

Ahmadi said 15 policewomen were currently having driving lessons, and would eventually be sent out on patrol in the city. This would not only make female drivers feel more secure, but would also make the public more used to seeing women behind the wheel, he said

That change in attitudes may take some time, however, given the widespread view – reinforced by some Muslim clerics – that taking the wheel exposes women to the gaze of strangers and is therefore wrong.

Sayed Ghulam Faruq, a Herat shopkeeper, said that he would never allow any female member of his family to drive.

“Muslims will never allow their women to be exposed to the eyes of strange men, as this issue has been mentioned several times by the mullahs preaching in the mosques,” he said.

Mawlavi Abdul Baset Monawari, the prayer leader at a Herat mosque, said women were required to avoid anything that focused attention on their outward appearance and could lead to immorality.

“Women driving is one of those actions,” he said, recommending that “women should pay more attention to looking after their families and children”.

Such attitudes are not, however, universal.

“I see women as human beings deserving of all human rights, and I can’t see any problem with them driving or working,” said Naimatullah, a male student at Herat university. “The idea of restricting women’s rights is outdated… women driving is a sign that a society has a high cultural level.

“When I observe women driving in Herat, I feel more safe and secure – if they can drive around the city, I think that the security problems must have been resolved.”

Sudabah Afzali is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.

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