Pakistan's only female taxi driver says road to working wasn't easy

Widow, who became the first and, so far, the only known woman taxi driver in Pakistan, says male relatives threatened to 'exterminate' her from her family when she first started working.

Zahida Kazmi, Pakistan’s first and only known female taxi driver, cleans the windshield of her yellow cab in Rawalpindi. Ms Kazmi became a cab driver to support her six children after her husband died.
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RAWALPINDI, Pakistan //Zahida Kazmi became a cab driver to support her four daughters and two sons after her husband died.

Despite vehement opposition from her family, the then 33-year-old widow became the first and, so far, the only known woman taxi driver in Pakistan.

"I feel proud of what I am doing," she said while sitting in the balcony of her house in a crowded market area in Rawalpindi.

Now 54, Ms Kazmi has emerged as a source of inspiration for underprivileged women who have very few career opportunities in Pakistan. According to the United Nations just 15 per cent of Pakistan's workforce are women.

Television networks air an advertisement from a commercial bank showing Ms Kazmi driving her yellow cab to encourage woman to work. But for Pakistan's only female taxi driver, the road to making herself a career wasn't easy.

Attired in blue and white shalwar kameez - the traditional baggy trouser and flowing shirt - with head covered with a white scarf, she vividly narrated experiences of her life.

After the death of her husband in 1981, Ms Kazmi started working as a house maid in Karachi.

"I was very charming and pretty," she said as her seven-year old youngest daughter, Zehra, played with a friend close by.

Ms Kazmi moved to Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjoining Islamabad, in the 1990s when ethnic and political violence erupted in Karachi.

Taking advantage of a government scheme in 1992 in which a person can buy a taxi in easy instalments, Ms Kazmi bought a brand new yellow cab and started picking up passengers from the Islamabad airport.

She soon faced hostility from her family. Her male relatives threatened to "exterminate" her from the family and her in-laws were opposed.

"I haven't done anything wrong. Therefore, I don't feel ashamed," she said. "But my life was very tough," she said with tears rolling down her cheeks as she recalled the sufferings she endured during her life.

Born into an ethnic Pashtun family in Peshawar, Ms Kazmi moved to Karachi after her marriage where her husband worked for the Pakistan Navy. He became a prisoner of war during Pakistan's last war with India in 1971. The husband later died in 1981 after he was freed.

Initially, she kept a gun next to her seat inside the taxi for protection but she never felt any fear despite being a woman.

"I never let a man to sit beside me in the taxi and while driving I always kept an eye on the activities of passengers sitting on the rear seat through the mirror."

Ms Kazmi said she had driven her cab throughout Pakistan, from Karachi to the lawless tribal region on the Afghan border and even to Kabul during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

"I never have had any mishap. I always earned respect because I am honest to my work and myself. I was strong enough to defend myself," she said.

Ms Kazmi was elected president of the Pakistan Yellow Cab Drivers Association for 12 years.

"I was the only woman driver but all men drivers have trust in me and that's why they always elected me unopposed."

Her career is all the more exceptional for the challenges faced by Pakistan's female workforce. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan 65 per cent of working women are engaged in low paid and unrepresented home-based work. Sexual harassment is common for those in the workplace.

Ms Kazmi said this should not deter women from accepting the challenges of life.

She is also a source of pride for her children.

"I can't drive more than 8 or 9 hours a day but my mother drives the car for 15 hours and even sometime 20 hours a day," Adnan Khalid, Ms Kazmi's 29-year-old son said.

A few years back, she bought a Toyota car from a bank on lease which she used for pick-and-drop service for passengers for remote areas.

"Her story is quite unique. It's inspiring to live with her and it's also an eye-opener," said Anca Dimoste, a student of Royal Holloway University of London, who is preparing a documentary on her life.

After driving taxi for over 20 years, Ms Kazmi said she has grown old and tired.

She remarried in 1995 and Zehra, now seven year old, was the only child from her second husband.

"Look at this," she said showing the wrinkles that have appeared on her hands. "Now, I can't drive long distances and at night because my eyesight has become weak.

Ms Kazmi said she wanted to buy a pickup van to give pick-and-drop service to school chlidren.

"Earlier, I faced hardships for my six children. Now I am facing hardships for Zehra only," she said in a choked voice.