Friday, August 24, 2018

Bus ladies

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of being invited to the Women of the World Festival, held in Brisbane this year.

Because it focusses on women – as artists, creators, activists, change-makers, musicians, amateur wall-climbers – it also hires mainly women. It is no longer unusual, of course, to see women hosting and organising events, marketing and managing ticketing counters and so on. However, it is still unusual to find women chauffeurs. What's rare is the sight of a woman driving a mini-bus. What's rarer than that is to board a bus and expect a woman behind the wheel. In Brisbane this year, I had this rare experience.

Around the world, at cultural or artistic events, the people who are driving guests to and fro the venue are often volunteers. They inhabit the city and would like to participate in its cultural life. Perhaps they get a little stipend too, but they are not professional taxi drivers. They are students or aspiring managers or just people who have a bit of spare time on their hands.

Even so, the first time I found a young woman at the wheel of a mini-bus, I was pleasantly surprised and I also thought that she must be an unsual woman. Maybe she has experience handling big vehicles. Then I realised that all the volunteers were women and they were all driving these huge vehicles. So I got talking.

Some of them turned out to be students at one of the local universities. They also had other jobs. None of the ladies I talked to drove big vehicles regularly. This was a new experience for them. They admitted that it looked a bit daunting at first, but also said that they felt confident handling the vehicle after the first day. They were cheerful, besides being good, careful drivers and I couldn't have felt happier or safer out in a strange city than knowing that the bus I was waiting for was being driven by a woman.

Back home, of course, this is not an experience I have had. I did bump into a female auto-rickshaw driver once in Delhi, but that was nearly a decade ago. I take hundreds of rickshaws every month in cities like Delhi and Mumbai but I have never again found a female driver. A few years ago, I found myself in Rohtak, and I spotted a few pink share-rickshaws. Curious, I hired one all by myself. It was driven by a young teenaged boy but a saree-clad matronly woman was seated up front beside him, on the driver's seat.

I asked whether the rickshaw was actually the woman's and she confessed it was given to her under some state scheme, meant to encourage women's employment. The boy was a family member, though, and she said she let him drive it most of the time.

I can't help thinking how different our world would look if, every time we hailed a cab or waited at the bus stop, we wouldn't know whether the hands on the wheel were going to be men or women. What if there was a fifty-fifty chance? And what if women didn't have to announce their presence on the streets by painting everything pink every time they got behind the wheel?


First published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/getting-behind-the-wheel/article24744774.ece

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