I’ve never met Sara Bahai outside the pages of my local newspaper or laptop screen, but I wouldn’t mind doing so. I’d like to look her in the eye and shake her hand. People who do things I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do tend to affect me that way.
Sara’s brand of bravery comes from being a member of what’s been called the world’s second oldest profession: She drives a cab.
Now I’ve only experienced the passenger side of that profession, and even that a mere handful of times, but my understanding is that, at least in America, practitioners have witnessed pretty much everything from the expulsion of body waste to acts better reserved for the privacy of the boudoir, as well as domestic arguments and costume quick-changes. Of course, not every day is that exciting, or even potentially risky.
But Sara plies her trade in Afghanistan, where she doesn’t have to worry as much about romantic spats or handing out barf bags as she does the male passengers who have no qualms about castigating her for “un-Islamic” behavior.
In 1996, women were banned from driving, under penalty of death, by the Taliban. Once its rule ended, they slowly began reappearing behind the wheel, thanks partly to the efforts of the German-based organization Medica Mondiale, which launched a driving course for women in 2002. However, they are still far outnumbered by their male counterparts, and reactions range from the astonished (“Look, it’s a girl!”) to the negative (threats of kidnapping or worse), even as some men informally teach their wives or regularly allow their sisters to take the wheel in an effort to normalize the sight.
As for Sara, while she admits that her male customers are never happy with her, despite the fact that Islam does not actually prohibit women from driving, she doesn’t get upset; she just tells them exactly what she thinks.
Which led me to think, as I put down my newspaper with a smile, “That’s one brave chick.”
* * *
I’ve been driving for enough years now that I don’t quite recall what my feelings were upon grasping the full implications of operating a gas-powered metal behemoth, other than a twinge of healthy intimidation, but decades later, I still enjoy a good cruise with the music cranked up and the sunroof cranked open. Sara’s first turn of the ignition felt like “someone had given me wings,” and if her maiden voyage in a neighbor’s car consisted merely of a few miles around her neighborhood, it was enough to get her hooked. So she took a two-week professional driving course and applied for her license.
But that wasn’t enough for Sara. To help provide for her ailing mother and her widowed sister’s seven children, she decided to become what is believed to be her country’s first female cab driver. Nor was that the only pattern she broke—despite a number of marriage proposals, she’s the sole sibling of fourteen to remain single. Looking at some of the “very unhappy” unions among her sisters, she has no regrets, especially since she wanted to demonstrate to the world that Afghan women were born for self-sufficient independence as well as marriage and motherhood.
Her female passengers tell her they’re proud of her. Some of them giggle under their burkas at the sight of a female cabbie, but they also feel more comfortable with one. And if she tells them much about herself, perhaps they’re as impressed as I was to learn that she does her own car repairs, buys and sells secondhand cars, has started her own driving school, is a beekeeper who earns extra income by selling homemade honey, and still finds time to be a human rights activist.
No wonder the gal is single. Who has time for a husband with that kind of schedule?
* * *
While Sara’s been a cabbie for over a decade, she still encounters a share of resistance in various forms. But like any trailblazer worth their salt, she pushes through it. And I hope that the next time I start my old Honda and tool down the road without fear of much beyond an unexpected traffic jam or possible flat tire, I’ll remember this middle-aged woman a world away who surprised and inspired and infuriated her fellow Afghans just by driving a car.
Just by being one brave chick.