Passers-by and pedestrians on Chittagong streets are taken by surprise when they come across a woman operating a battery-run rickshaw through the busy thoroughfares of the port city.
Mosammat Jasmine Akter Fatema, popularly known as “Fatema Khala,” has broken the societal stereotype that pulling rickshaw is as a man’s job.
Fatema, with her great aplomb even at the age of 40, in fact, manages to raise just as many eyebrows of women, too.
Braving all the taunts and odds, the mother of three has been pulling a rickshaw to feed her family of five for about 10 years.
“I am doing this laborious job only to feed my three children and my mother who lives in Comilla. I want to give my children good education,” Fatema told the Dhaka Tribune.
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“Why should we beg for living? God gave us hands and legs to work with and I live by driving rickshaw with honour,” said Fatema.
Orignially from Baputipara village under Muradnagar upazila of Comilla, Fatema came to Chittagong about 20 years ago in search of a job when her husband Harun-ur-Rashid deserted her.
Now living alone in a tiny room in settlement in Chittagong city’s Wireless area, Fatema said: “I was married to Harun at the age of 16. He left me and my three children, went abroad and married another woman.
“I did not like the idea of working as a domestic help since the salary was too low to survive by. I did not opt for working as a garment worker as the salary was not regular at that time in most of the factories. So, I chose to pull a rickshaw. It is an independent job and I can drive at my own will."
She said: “With the help of one of my neighbours, I first pulled a paddle tricycle and later started to drive a battery-run rickshaw when it was launched in the city.”
Fatema’s elder son Hasan is preparing for his SSC exam in Comilla while her second son Rubel works in a garage there. Her 13-year-old daughter Parvin completed her primary school last year.
“At first, passengers would be surprised and hesitant to board my rickshaw. But they soon began to appreciate my driving skills and some even gave me extra money,” said Fatema.
Asked whether she had been confronted with religious indictments, Fatema said: “Many people said such things, but I told them that we were all creations of Allah and I do not do anything sinful by driving a rickshaw for a living.”
Josna Ara Begum, 50, a neighbour to Fatema, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Pulling a rickshaw is a really hard task. It inspires me that Fatema has been doing this job to feed herself and her family.
“Although many passers-by often taunt Fatema during her work, she does not pay any heed to them.”
Md Sujon, 20, a tea vendor living in the same locality, said: “We appreciate Fatema for her courageous attitude as living by driving a rickshaw is not an easy task for a woman.”
Fatema said she earns around Tk800 daily in two shifts and has to pay Tk300 to the owner of her rickshaw.
“A well-wisher had given me a rickshaw last year but it was stolen from the garage. So for now I am driving another on rent,” said Fatema.
Srijita Bhattacarjee, a Facebook activist, who had organised the event to donate a rickshaw to Fatema, said: “After getting to know about the struggle of this woman and her life as a rickshaw-puller, we donated a rickshaw to Fatema last year.”