Thursday, September 10, 2015

Palestine's only female taxi driver

Nadia Ahmad at the wheel of her taxi [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera]
Nadia Ahmad is planning to start her own fleet of taxis in the Occupied West Bank town of Hebron -- driven by women, for women, Sheren Khalel and Abed al-Qaisi report for Al Jazeera.

It is something we discussed with friends during my stay in the Occupied West Bank town of Beit Jala last month. Everyone was curious to hear about Dubai and its progress. Among other topics, we spoke of the city’s pink taxis driven by women. So it was a very pleasant surprise when I spotted this news item on Al Jazeera, especially considering the very volatile situation in Hebron where Palestinians are subjected to constant harassment by Israeli settlers.

Khalal and Qaisi write:

Nadia Ahmad prefers to drive in manual. She laughs, motioning with one hand as if she is changing gears while the other one rests on an imaginary wheel.

Ahmad has been preoccupied with cars since she was a young girl, but she never thought she would end up making a living out of her love for being behind the wheel.

For the past two years, Ahmad has been driving a taxi through the streets of Hebron.

While she never planned to make a political statement with her career, there is no getting around it: Ahmad is believed to be the only female taxi driver in all of Palestine.

Her floral-printed mauve headscarf and long black abaya stand out among the rows of bare male elbows poking out of the drivers' windows in the bustling city of Hebron.

She says her husband, a professor of information technology at a local university, never challenged her dream of driving a taxi -- but many others in the community were not as open to her unusual job choice.

Nadia Ahmad shows off her driving license [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera]
"In the beginning, there was a lot of gossip. When my brother heard other drivers talking about me, about 'that woman who drives a taxi,' he came home and was furious and demanded I stop at once," Ahmad told Al Jazeera.

Ahmad stopped driving for several months after that, but her husband urged her to continue.

Nahid Abu Taima, who teaches a course on feminism in the media at Birzeit University, told Al Jazeera that women like Ahmad are trailblazers in Palestine, paving the way for an equal society.

Madeleine Kulab, 16, Gaza's only fisherwoman
"There's another woman like [Ahmad] in Gaza. She's a fisherwoman. She's surely the only woman doing that job," Abu Taima said. "It's not easy, but these women are opening doors for other women to start work -- not just in general, but in fields previously impossible. We will look back and see [that] these women who made the first jump into 'male' fields helped push us towards equality."

For Palestinian women to break out of the gendered roles in society, Abu Taima says they will have to be prepared for the same kind of backlash and community gossip to which Ahmad was initially subjected.

"Eventually, though, people will start to understand that there is no problem with what she is doing," Abu Taima said.

Ahmad became interested in cars at a young age -- but even then, she understood that it was not considered a "normal" interest for a girl.

She watched her cousins work on their engines when she was a teenager -- never asking questions, but taking mental notes instead.

"I can work on my own car [now]. I watched and watched, [and] now I know about cars. I can take even apart the carburetor," Ahmad said.

Ahmad's daughter, who is married and lives in neighboring Jordan, has followed in her mother's footsteps by obtaining a taxi driver's license as well -=- though she has not yet started driving professionally.

The support Ahmad has received from her family has pushed her to think of her career in a bigger way. She now wants to start her own business, and within the next few years, she hopes to run a small fleet of taxis driven by women, for women.

"The cars will be neon green," she said. "I want to distinguish the all-women taxis from the mainstream ones." [Those are yellow.]

If her idea comes to fruition, customers would be able to request taxis by phone, so women would not have to flag down their ride on the side of the street. She also plans to provide car seats for children upon request, an option not available to women taking mainstream taxis.

So far, Ahmad has encouraged six other women to acquire government-issued taxi licenses. While all six have passed their test and are now licensed taxi drivers, they said family pressure has kept them from proceeding further. Still, Ahmad remains confident they will eventually agree to join her fleet.

ADWAR's Sahar al-Kawasmeh,  [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera] 
The Roles for Social Change Association (ADWAR), a nongovernmental organization based in the Occupied West Bank, is fully behind Ahmad, general director Sahar al-Kawasmeh told Al Jazeera. Much of ADWAR's work involves fundraising for projects that coordinators believe will help close the gender gap in Palestinian society, and Kawasmeh believes Ahmad's business model is a perfect match.

"When she gets a few more women on board with her idea, we can start an ADWAR project for her business and begin fundraising," Kawasmeh said.

In June, ADWAR recognized Ahmad with their Roles for Social Change Award in honor of her part in breaking social stereotypes and being a positive role model.

Earlier this year, Ahmad submitted her application for a business license, along with her business pitch, to the Palestinian Ministry of Transportation to gauge the viability of her entrepreneurial plans.

A ministry representative from told Al Jazeera that as long as Ahmad was able to meet all the  requirements of any new taxi company -- including office space, insurance, licensed cars and drivers, and start-up cash -- she would be allowed to open.

"We do not discriminate upon gender," the representative, who did not provide his name, told Al Jazeera. "Man, woman, whatever -- there are standard procedural steps that have to be taken, that's all."