Women's Rights

'Pink Shuttle' buses help Afghan women navigate conservative society

Salaam Times and AFP

Razia Dalili, an Afghan female minivan driver, guides her minivan through Kabul's congested traffic, attracting astonished stares, smiles and expression of shock from other Afghans in an ultra-conservative society. [NAJIBA NOORI / AFPTV / AFP]

KABUL -- Parisa Haidary gets behind the steering wheel of a mini-bus, kicks off her high heels and with a socked foot presses the accelerator, carefully easing the 10-seater into Kabul's ever-clogged traffic.

The Afghan mother, who works for a women-only bus service, smiles as other road-users -- all of them men -- gawk in astonishment.

"We get a lot of different reactions," she says. "Some drivers block our way, others honk at us, some even drive alongside at the same speed when the road is clear."

In an ultra-patriarchal society where it remains rare to see a woman behind the wheel, Haidary is one of four drivers working for Pink Shuttle, a pilot bus programme employing only women to ferry female passengers and their kids across the Afghan capital.


In this photograph taken October 31 Razia Dalili looks back as she talks to her passengers on a mini-bus in Kabul. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]


In this photograph taken October 31 Parisa Haidary drives a mini-bus to pick up woman passengers in Kabul. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

"I love driving, and I am interested in my job. The only concern we have is the security situation. We have to stay fearless," Haidary said.

The 36-year-old former beautician, who has also worked as a television journalist, was chosen for the job from a total of 100 candidates.

The first-of-its-kind service is helping women navigate the many challenges they face getting around Kabul, where a woeful lack of transport options is compounded by the risk of harassment if they walk on the streets.

"We have transportation problems for women. In fact, public transportation does not exist, especially for women in Kabul," said Obaidullah Amiri, project co-ordinator for Pink Shuttle.

Pink Shuttle is operated by Nove Onlus, an Italian NGO that in turn is being supported by the Only The Brave foundation, created by fashion designer Renzo Rosso.

Amiri said the pilot project, which started in May and also receives backing from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is set to be extended.

While the service is presently offered for free to a limited number of pre-approved passengers, Nove Onlus hopes it will become financially sustainable within two years.

Terrifying traffic

The number of female drivers in the capital has been steadily growing, with 275 licences approved for the first half of the year, said Khan Mohammad Shinwari, chief of Kabul's traffic police.

This is quite a jump: in the years between 2012 and 2016, just 1,189 women in got licences in the city, according to Nove Onlus.

It is a "positive change to see Afghan women driving in Kabul", Shinwari said. "There are no restrictions on women becoming drivers."

Navigating Kabul's traffic is no easy feat. Traffic can flow fast one moment, then suddenly grind to a complete standstill for hours on end.

Road signs are non-existent, and drivers often zoom the wrong way into oncoming traffic. Usually, it is the bigger of two vehicles that wins the right of way.

Re-asserting lost rights

When Taliban insurgents swept into power in 1996, they forced women to stay home and barred them from most jobs. They also deprived women of their right to an education.

After an international coalition toppled the militants in late 2001, gender equality was enshrined in the Afghan constitution, though discrimination remains rife.

Fatima Mohammadi, a 31-year-old Kabul resident who has been driving for about four years, said she appreciated the freedom of having a car but still deals with daily harassment on the road.

"I usually don't leave the windows of the car open," she said.

"Sometimes when another driver or passerby smiles or says 'well done,' it feels like harassment."

Women like Haidary and Mohammadi worry the Taliban could return to power and take away their relative freedoms.

Negotiations between the United States and the Taliban resumed December 7 in Doha, Qatar, after they collapsed in September. Now, no one is sure what will come next.

"If the Taliban come back, I hope they are not the same group they used to be," said Haidary. "If they impose the same limitations, we will lose our jobs."

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