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Women behind the wheel

  • Published at 12:03 pm June 26th, 2018
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It’s about time Photo: BIGSTOCK

The mere act of driving becomes a symbol for women’s freedom

In a country as populous as Bangladesh, where almost half the population is female, strong stigmas against women nevertheless persist. 

One such stigma that truly hits home is the common perception that women are bad drivers. It’s true, the sight of a young lady behind the wheel is not a usual occurrence on the roads of Dhaka city; but rarely is the question asked: Why?

A country emerging from war and poverty, Bangladesh has recently been declared a lower-middle income country, and is economically growing at a rapid rate. Women have been playing a crucial role in the garments sector for years, and have proven to be more than capable when it comes to maneuvering metropolitan life in Dhaka. 

Yet, their credibility behind a wheel is constantly questioned, not only by doubtful on-lookers but also by law enforcers. 

Of course, the scarcity of female drivers can be linked to a lack of economic prosperity in our country, as simply not every household can afford private transportation. But there is a lot to be said regarding the societal perceptions of a woman on the road. While on our way to celebrate Eid with family, my mother’s car was stopped by a bemused police officer who asked whether she had a license. 

The officer’s demeanor made it clear that he found the very concept of a woman driving to be ridiculous, and he had stopped us in the middle of a crowded intersection to express his disapproval. He had not even bothered asking us to pull over to the side of the road so that we wouldn’t be hindering oncoming traffic.

In a city where women face the danger of being belittled by the very people enforced to protect them, how can they live fulfilling lives as mothers, daughters, teachers and contributors to the growth of this nation?

Offenses as minor as blatantly staring at a girl driving past, to deliberately trying to overtake a female driver on the road as a display of one’s “masculinity,” all contain dangerous social implications and only take us further away from becoming a progressive nation.

Exactly where do these biases come from? It’s a social prejudice that has been stamped into our society. Driving has been considered as something masculine, something women should not dare partake in. This mentality is common and widespread, not just in Bangladesh, but in many countries around the globe. 

Saudi Arabia just recently legalized the issuing of driving licenses to its female residents, ending a policy that had oppressed Saudi women for decades. Although a step in the right direction, women are still trapped under the guardianships of their male counterparts who are to make all their financial, medical, and legal decisions for them. 

Subjugation of women is a persistent issue, hinging on the religious and cultural ideals of a country. Even a nation as prosperous as Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, and their female denizens suffer the brunt of it all. 

Bangladesh, in comparison, is not nearly as affluent, nor as religiously sacrosanct as Saudi Arabia. Yet, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between the lifestyles of women in both countries. The stigma against driving becomes a lesser issue in comparison to the ordeals a young girl must face growing up in either culture. 

But, the mere act of driving itself is almost symbolic of a woman’s freedom and basic right. This is why women behind the wheel everywhere must be respected and accepted.

It is up to us as a nation to get rid of the prejudices that still exist -- change will not come today, nor will it come tomorrow, but it is important to note that the first protest against the ban on females driving in Saudi Arabia happened in 1990.  

Three decades later, Saudi women have finally achieved reform. Building social awareness through education and media is the key to a better Bangladesh.

It is time to open the eyes of Bangladeshis everywhere, and show them not only what it is like to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes, but also to drive in them.

Areta Kabir is a contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.