x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iranian women drive home principle of fair play

Women-only taxis are becoming big business in Iran, with a raft of new companies setting up.

Jila Hosseinpour waits for a customer in Tehran.
Jila Hosseinpour waits for a customer in Tehran.

TEHRAN // Just a few years ago, the sight of a woman driving a taxi in Iran's capital city would have been unheard of; today, several privately owned taxi companies have put female drivers on the road offering a popular women-only service.

Sima Hedayat, who has been driving a taxi for a year, chats freely as she steers her car through Tehran's busy roads. "I have a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology, but it was really hard to find a good job in my own field. I finally found one in a government office and worked there for a year, but I was not very happy. Being confined to an office is simply not my type of thing," she said. "I'm happy and proud of what I am doing [now]. Now I have a much better income, too," said Mrs Hedayat, 34, and a mother of one daughter.

Some critics worry that the women-only taxi service will exacerbate sex segregation in a country where women and men are already kept apart in some public places. But others are optimistic that it will provide women with an opportunity to break down taboos. "Cab driving has always been considered a masculine job and many traditional families find it outrageous for women to drive taxis," said Taraneh Salehi, 42, a teacher.

"Working for women-only taxi companies can help women overcome resistance from their families and society more easily." Although Iranian law does not prohibit women from driving any type of vehicle, tradition often does. But things are changing rapidly. "Now there are several female BRT bus drivers in Tehran and even a number of female intercity bus drivers. We'll soon see women driving heavy vehicles, too," said Ms Salehi, recalling a newspaper report about a woman who drove an 18-wheel lorry inside and outside Iran.

Iran's first all-women taxi company was set up in 2002, in Qom, 137km to the south of Tehran, to meet the demands of many female passengers who preferred to be driven by women. Other cities, including the capital, soon followed suit and there are now many women-only private car hire companies operating throughout the country with the cars ordered over the phone. Men and boys over the age of 14 are not allowed in the cars.

In Dec 2005, the first radio-operated taxi company for women was launched in Tehran. The company's green taxis are now operating in other cities, such as Kashan, Isfahan and Zahedan, where growing demand has spread their services. In Tehran alone, the privately-owned company has a fleet of more than 800 taxis. Female drivers hired by the company initially pay around 46.5 million rials (Dh17,740) for their small Iranian-made cars, known as Pride. Once they start work, they pay 1.2 million rials a month for the first five years to cover the rest of the cost of the car; 700,000 rials a month for insurance and other fees, and anything on top of that is their profit.

"Depending on how many hours I work, I can earn between eight million rials and 12 million," said Jila Hosseinpour, 54, who said she worked everyday from about 7.30am to 4.30pm. Mrs Hosseinpour said her husband encouraged her to buy her own taxi after seeing how much she enjoyed driving, and how good she was at it. "My three children, all of them over 20 now, are very supportive. They know that driving female passengers is very safe and the company patrols are always there to help if any emergency arises," she said. But not all women have such supportive families. "My husband and my own family were against me taking this job at first. They thought the job wasn't suited to women's physique and skills, and were worried about my safety," said Mrs Hedayat, the taxi driver.

"I had driven my own car for years, and after I had all the required training in first aid, car mechanics, GPS operation, etc ? they changed their minds." Security is also a concern for many families who object to women driving taxis, but Mrs Hedayat said the companies and the police provided a good layer of protection. "Once, a male driver hurled abuse at me in a traffic jam. When he refused to apologise, I radioed the company inspectors who patrol the streets and the police street patrols. They arrived within minutes. He had to sign a written statement and promise never to harass female drivers again," she said.

In Iran, some public transportation is segregated. Women sit in separate sections in city buses and on the metro, there are separate carriages for female commuters if they prefer not to use the other cars. There is no separation in shared taxis. Many women avoid using them or prefer to sit in the front so they are not crushed in the back alongside men. "My family is traditional and religious. They don't like me sitting next to total strangers in shared taxis and although the fare is much higher; they prefer to hail me a cab whenever I go to places on my own," said Layla Hamadani, 17, who was being dropped off by a woman-driven taxi in front of Tehran's first female-only park.

"They feel even safer for me since they learnt about this all-female cab company last year. I am a regular customer now," she said. msinaiee@thenational.ae