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Women Drive Change in West Bengal, Literally

Taking the stereotype that women cannot drive and turning it on its head, meet Munmun Sarkar and her band of 78 women autorickshaws who will not be stopped.

One of the biggest news stories from this week has been Saudi Arabia issuing driving licenses to women. The country has been infamous for disallowing women to drive for decades and has seen much resistance and resilience from its women. As Indians, many of us often look to Saudi Arabia for comparisons, especially when it comes to women’s rights. We pride ourselves for not having laws that prohibit women from driving and for not having dress codes for women. But are we really all that different?

One of the many taxi services at the Mumbai Airport has a tie-up with a women’s organisation that trains women to drive professionally. If you are queueing up for a taxi, you may be asked “ladies driver chalega?” or “will a woman driver be okay?” and then given a receipt which clearly says “Ladies Driver” on top. While the purpose of the specification on the receipt may be to record the number of customers the women’s service got, asking a customer if they are okay with a woman driver serves no purpose. It only feeds into the idea that women are bad drivers and that driving, as a profession, is an aberration for women.

And it is, indeed, an aberration in most parts of the world, and so it was in Jalpaiguri too, a border-district in West Bengal, till Munmun Sarkar took to the wheel, and started to drive change for herself and for the women around her.

“No one taught me how to drive an autorickshaw, I went to the showroom and asked them to show me the basics like where the brake was, and then I was on my own. Eventually, I taught another woman and then she taught another, and like that, we are now a group of 78 women autorickshaw drivers”, says Sarkar.

Puja Datta says that she was inspired by Sarkar and the other women who were driving autorickshaws and decided that it was the right profession for her as well. “I don’t care about what people have to say about my occupation, I have a child to support and I must do this”, she says.

Not everyone is equally inspired, unfortunately, definitely not the men in the profession. “They call me a gunda (criminal) and Jhansi Rani (a warrior-queen who fought in the freedom movement in India) but I am not bothered, if I am a criminal for engaging in self-defence, so be it”, says Sarkar, unrattled.

The police is not always very kind to them either, nor are bus drivers who deliberately drive too close to them, Dutta believes.

“Women should not drive autorickshaws, who will take the risk if there is a problem? Because of them, we cannot even earn 200 rupees a day”, says Krishan Roy, a male autorickshaw driver. Rabin Das, another man driving autorickshaws, also says that they (men) have stomachs to feed too.

Clearly, women are still not seen as primary breadwinners. “We can run our families and not solely depend on our husbands”, says Jayadipa Biswas, another woman autorickshaw driver. Roy, who is against women being in the profession, also mentions “risk” although he does not define it. But it is not uncommon to hear that certain jobs are risky for women and that they should steer clear of them.

But Sarkar and her group of women are challenging the image of the ubiquitous autowallah who is inevitably a man, at least in popular imagination. Many women’s organisations and individual women in other cities are also joining in to challenge the stereotype.

“If a woman starts to work, it takes a lot of courage”, says Biswas, and it is especially so when the job is an unconventional one. But like Sarkar says, no job is too lowly; and one hopes that all streets and all professions will be equally occupied by all genders one day.

Video by Community Correspondent Rajkumar Rizal

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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