Following an absence of almost a decade, Afghan women drivers are once again appearing on the busy streets of Kabul. While initial numbers are low, the move is seen as symbolic of the development of women’s rights.
"I love to drive myself and don’t want to be too dependent," Suhaila Kabir, a 42 year-old civil servant told IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul. "When I see a woman driving it gives me more confidence."
While there had not been any driving courses for women before, the mother-of-five, who learnt to drive from her husband informally, says she now wants an actual licence. "I need more practice to get a licence," she explained.
Kabir’s wish may soon become a reality as the capital’s first driving course for women prepares to graduate its first class, thanks to efforts by a German-based NGO offering support to traumatised women and girls in war and crisis zones.
"Almost every woman I spoke to wants to learn to drive," Rachel Wareham, the programme manager of Medica Mondiale, which launched the course last April, told IRIN.
Aimed at helping women have the same choices as men by allowing them to travel independently, the group has already provided driving lessons to some one hundred women, 18 of whom will graduate next Saturday, with licences to be issued by the Kabul Traffic Department.
Asked why it had taken so long, Wareham noted that they had only one vehicle for the women to practice in, adding also that city officials were slow in processing their applicants.
But according to traffic department official, Sardar Mohammad, such delays were normal given current rules and regulations regarding licences. Most of the women did not hold national identification cards, a prerequisite for a licence, or were weak in the practical test. Of the 8,698 licences issued last year, only seven of them were women, he explained.
He conceded, however, that facilities to learn to drive remain targeted towards men and more resources were needed. "We do not have facilities and equipment to create separate driving courses for women," he said.
Describing the reemergence of female drivers nostalgically, he recalled: "Women used to drive public buses in Kabul."
And while many men welcomed the news, Hashmatullah, a 26-year-old taxi driver, was more reserved, telling IRIN he would prefer if his wife still didn’t drive. "The present security and social situation is still not accepting women drivers," he explained, adding that social norms had become too narrow minded over the last ten years of war.
But for women like Kabir, getting a licence remains a major move forward. "I hear a lot of negative comments from people about women driving," she said, noting, however, that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.