Chandni Gautam, above, is one of the first of her kind; a female cab driver in India. Gautam works for a company employing and training women to become cab drivers and chauffeurs. But the job is about more than getting a license. It means going to work in openly hostile field, where road rage, physical threats and sexual violence are often sparked by the sight of a woman behind the wheel.
NEW DELHI––On a sticky afternoon in New Delhi, India, Chandni Gautam inches her cab into a narrow street where she is due to pick up a passenger.
As one of the city’s few female cab drivers, 21-year-old Gautam is an unusual sight in her conspicuous blue uniform and car that reads “Cabs for women, by women.”
Male chauffeurs and house guards gawk at her as she reverses the car into a parking spot. “Did you notice those men staring?” she says as she steers her way back into Delhi’s traffic. On the road, at every traffic light or each time the cab slows down, men peer at her. But Gautam chats away, indifferent to their curiosity.
“I enjoy driving,” she said, adding that she is aware of the perils of her round-the-clock job.
New Delhi – India’s historic, gritty capital – is notorious for its high rate of rape, a level that is quite close to New York City’s 534 rape complaints in 2010. A recent poll also ranked India as the worst G20 country for women and cited gender-based violence as a major reason.
Gautam’s boss, Nayantara Janardhan, said, “If Delhi is unsafe for women, let’s have more women on the road to make it safer.”
Sakha Consulting Wings, the company that employees Gautam and a fleet of other women drivers, is doing just that by increasing the number of women behind the wheel as cab drivers or private chauffeurs. In Sakha cabs, men cannot ride unless a female passenger is also present.
Although it was New Delhi’s first such cab service, it is no longer the only one. There are a handful of others in New Delhi and other Indian cities that are tapping into a new but promising market for cabs driven by women. More Indian women are traveling, working late hours or just staying out with friends to catch a movie or get drinks at a bar.
For those who do not drive, cabs or auto rickshaws are common late-night transportation after buses and subways stop running. But male-driven cabs have proved to be unsafe in some cases.
“We want to provide safe transport for women,” Janardhan said who believes that Sakha’s decision to cater almost exclusively to women is one way of combating this issue.
She said women and businesses with female clients and employees are slowly responding to the cab service. But some women say hiring a female-driven cab in the night makes them more apprehensive.
“I may as well drive myself,” Namrata Mehta said, a young, working Delhite. “It’s not just about the cab driver. It’s also about who else is on the road and might follow you.”
Appalling incidents like this one – where a woman was forcibly taken from a cab after being followed – are not uncommon in Delhi or its brash new satellite cities, Gurgaon and Noida. Even though an increasing number of women have started driving their own cars, they have found that men react more aggressively to female drivers.
Mehta, who has been driving in Delhi for the last few years, said women passing another car or honking is enough to annoy some male drivers. That is one of the reasons she prefers not to drive at night.
“A lot of men are on edge when they see women doing things that aren’t traditional,” she said. “If I hire a female cab driver in the night, not only am I out late, I am also being driven by a woman. I can’t help but wonder if that would attract the wrong kind of attention.”
A new cab service called GCabs has 10 women-only cabs alongside its regular ones, but sends its female drivers home before 8 p.m.
“Safety is a priority,” CEO Babita Nihal said. So much so that all their cabs come equipped with panic buttons that can alert their “vigilance team” in case of an emergency.
Sakha, however, runs a 24-hour service with cabs that need to be booked at least four hours ahead of time. With just seven cab drivers, Janardhan says, they cannot afford to run a typical cab service just yet. They do have 40 women working as private chauffeurs and another 50 in training.
Janardhan said all the recruits start off as private chauffeurs because it takes a year to acquire a commercial driving license. They are later given the choice to switch to driving cabs. Many women prefer working as cab drivers because they can take the cabs home. But Gautam, who joined Sakha three years ago, said driving at odd hours during the night is just as risky.
“It is unsafe but I want to change that,” she said. “I lock my doors. I carry pepper spray. I took self-defense classes.”
The classes, offered by the women’s wing of the Delhi Police Department, are a must for every woman Sakha trains.
Gautam first heard of Sakha through a street play in her neighborhood. “I have been fascinated by driving since I was a kid, when my father used to drive a truck,” she said. When she was in school, her uncle taught her to drive a tractor.
But her uncle is not very happy with her decision to drive cars for a living. “My father is very supportive but my uncle thinks I have gone astray,” Gautam said. “People think small. That’s the problem.”
Sakha also teaches the women, whose ages range from 18 to 35, about women’s rights and the legal recourse available to them. Janardhan said this helps them become more confident by the end of their yearlong training period.
“Some of the women who work for us were able to walk out of abusive relationships, thanks to the training,” she said.
Gautam was once a nervous, quiet girl when she first joined. But now, she does not hesitate to stand up for herself if she is offended.
“Every other day, men, complete strangers, come and tell me I shouldn’t be doing this job, that it’s a dirty job for a woman,” Gautam said. “But I tell them to mind their own business.”
One time, she chased a man who made an inappropriate comment and even forced him to apologize. “I think it’s important that we don’t tolerate such behavior,” Gautam added.
Despite the hardships, she loves her job, “It’s exciting to be a cab driver because you meet so many new people. Some are sweet, some are sour and some are a bit of both.” Gautam once gave a ride to Amir Khan, a popular Bollywood actor, who she drove the last time he was in Delhi.
Almost all of Sakha’s recruits, like Gautam, are from some of Delhi’s poorest families. Most of these women live in slums in and around Kalkaji, a crowded south Delhi neighborhood where Sakha operates.
Besides providing safe transportation for women, Sakha’s business aims to provide a livelihood for women in poverty like Gautam, who earn up to $ 215 a month as drivers.
Sujatha Jaina, a 30-year-old woman with two sons, held a day job as a tailor and then worked nights as a janitor at the domestic airport to make ends meet. She now earns a little over $250 a month driving for GCabs, double what she earned at previous jobs. She said her husband does not support the family so it is up to her to care for her children.
“I am earning well enough so my children can grow up and be what they want,” Jaina said.
Other Asian countries like Singapore, Indonesia and even Egypt now have female cab drivers. However, as in India, they are still a small number. Sakha is possibly the only company that hires out women as private chauffeurs in addition to cab drivers. Janardhan said that Sakha receives the greatest response from mothers with young children who prefer female chauffeurs.
“They believe women are cleaner, less likely to drink, more trustworthy when it comes to their children,” Janardhan said.
Devika Menon, a young, professional woman, recently hired a Sakha chauffer. “I like having a female driver because I find it safer and more comfortable,” she said. Menon appreciates that her new chauffer, 20-year-old Lalitha, does not leer at her friends like male drivers have done.
Gautam used to work for a family with a young boy before she started driving a cab. She said she misses the child but she likes her job now because the hours are more flexible. Gautam is also currently pursuing her undergraduate degree through distance learning. She is not sure if she wants to change professions but she does have a dream for the future.
“I want to drive a jaguar someday,” she said. “I know the Taj Palace hotel uses them as cabs.”