Driving while female: Perils of the woman driver

In India, male chauvinism is the other traffic hazard faced by women drivers on the streets, where they are often heckled and bullied, sometimes dangerously so.

hidden October 25, 2012 14:58:06 IST
Driving while female: Perils of the woman driver

By Kamala Thiagarajan

In an automobile advertisement, a young woman in a business suit races down a highway in her car, her ecstatic face signaling the joy of freedom, speed, and rebellion. There are no men hooting or heckling, or trying to run her off the road.

She's clearly not in India, where misogyny is the other traffic hazard faced by women on a daily basis.

When Virupa Kantamneni, 27, an architect in Chennai took a taxi home from the airport, she noticed that her cabbie was driving rashly through peak hour traffic, taking unnecessary risks. When he tried to roughly push past a lady on a two-wheeler, she had to intervene and ask him to slow down. His response shocked her.

"What do you women know about driving?" he railed. "Just because you are now earning enough money to buy a vehicle doesn't mean you're capable of driving it."

This bad attitude is not limited to cab drivers.

Driving while female Perils of the woman driver

A woman driver poses with her car in a rally in Kolkata. Reuters.

"Women drivers are always slow and unsure of themselves, they invariably take up two parking spaces and always have difficulty pulling their car out -- a real health hazard on the streets. I know there are exceptions to this rule, but so far, I haven't met any," says Kesav [Name changed], 34, a software consultant working in Chennai.

Such stereotypes are the unspoken bane of the woman driver, who gets little respect, no matter how skilled or experienced she may be.

Purnima Prabhu, 53, a feature film director living in Mumbai recalls being one of the first commuters back when the Mumbai-Pune expressway first opened.

"In those days, people would stare at me when I drove my van," she says. "Some drivers would even trail my back fender, just to annoy me and see how I'd react. I realized early on that when a woman drives, after the initial disbelief fades away, all she gets are complaints. When I observe speed limits, I'm criticized for being too slow. People honk mercilessly, assuming I'm going slow because I can't drive, while clearly, I'm only following road rules!'

"Many people assume that a woman can't reverse, so every time I put my huge van into reverse gear, a 'helpful' crowd instantly gathers, giving me all kinds of assistance to pull out, even when I don't need it!" says Prabhu. But to her credit, she never rebukes them. "What if some woman actually needed the help and I discouraged people from offering it?" she says.

These maddening, pre-conceived notions are not just tiresome, but at times dangerous.

A few months ago, Akhila Arun, 33, a freelance writer was driving home alone on a bylane off Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) in Chennai when she was accosted by a cab driver, belonging to a well-known company in Chennai.

"He spotted me from a distance, thanks to the lack of (window) tints now, and decided to provoke me," she says. On that lonely road, the cabbie proceeded to ram his car straight into Akhila's, but he swerved away seconds before impact, almost running her off the road. When she later shared the incident -- which left her feeling frightened and helpless -- on Facebook, she received an overwhelming response, with many of her female friends relating similar incidents of harassment while driving.

After fifteen years on the road, Akhila says her experience was an eye-opener.  "I think, despite living in an urban world, we are surrounded by illiterate, uneducated men, who cannot handle the idea of women in power. They feel threatened and are constantly looking to do something that can upset the applecart."

The prejudice is not limited to cars.

It may be a common sight to see a woman on a two wheeler today, but Reshmi Jaimon, 33, a writer who now lives in Kochi, remembers the hard time she had back in 1997 as one of the first to test drive a 210-kg Enfield Bullet. Just as she was practicing her driving, a group of men in a car followed her, jeering, howling and shouting out insults.

"They asked me just who I thought I was to ride a bike that was obviously meant for men. Trivandrum had an orthodox outlook in those days and they couldn't digest a girl handling a heavy bike with ease," she recalls. But when they tried to run her off the road, the incident took on sinister overtones, and she was fortunate to get away unharmed.

Women drivers do make headlines, but only when they steer 'heavy' vehicles once considered the domain of menfolk-- trains, lorries, autos, buses. These make for great media photo ops, for nothing spells empowerment in a patriarchal society more than a fragile young thing, behind the wheel of all that metal chrome and steel. Reems of newsprint are devoted to how they are tougher than they look and able to survive in a 'man's' world. But no one thinks of asking the most basic question: Why is driving considered the exclusive realm of the male in the first place? When women have unequivocally conquered the corporate world (and a world beyond that too, where few men have ever gone before) why can't they be trusted to steer their own cars?

This despite a recent study by the University of New South Wales Transport and Road Safety research unit  which found that male drivers, motorcyclists and pedestrians, are twice as likely to be killed on the road than women. It also revealed that women were far better drivers, more cautious, more prone to observing traffic rules and less likely to speed or tragically die in a road accident.

May be it's time men woke up to the reality of who really is in that driver's seat!

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