MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Sara Bahai's decision to become Afghanistan's only known female taxi driver was motivated less by ideals of equality than by the need to support an extended family — and a love of driving that has confined her conservative detractors to the rear-view mirror.
She still remembers her first time behind the wheel, shortly after the Taliban were driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. "I felt like I was in the sky, and I totally fell in love with driving," she said. There was no turning back.
Bahai, now around 40 years old, had already spent much of her life defying taboos in Afghanistan, where women are widely regarded as inferior to men and discouraged from working outside the home.
She never married, she said, because she had to support her parents and siblings and feared a husband would prevent her from working. With no children of her own she adopted two boys, now both in high school. When Taliban insurgents shot and killed her brother-in-law, she took in her sister and seven nieces and nephews. She now supports a dozen people.
To put food on the table, she drives around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in a spotlessly clean yellow and white Toyota Corolla with sparkly woven seat covers and a good luck talisman in the front window.
"I receive threats from unknown callers who tell me to not drive in the city because I am a woman, because it is against Islam. Some tell me that if I continue to work as a taxi driver they will kill me," she said.
"Male passengers are very jealous and often abuse me, but I don't care what they think of me, I am not afraid. I will change the country with whatever ability I have to do so," she said.
She got her driver's license in 2002 and is also a mechanic. She earned a university degree in education and now teaches other women to drive so they can be more independent.
Attitudes about women have been slowly changing in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and gender equality is enshrined in the constitution. But local authorities have been slow to adopt change, and outside major cities deeply conservative traditions prevail.
Women who step out of their homes unaccompanied by male relatives often face verbal and sometimes physical harassment. Domestic violence goes largely unpunished and girls are still married off against their will, often to much older men, as payment for debts or as swaps for property.
At the same time, millions of girls are today attending school, and many graduate from university. Maternal mortality rates are falling as health services improve, and it is no longer unusual for women to travel abroad alone, or even to live alone in major Afghan cities. A recent spike in rape reports reflects the effectiveness of public education campaigns, according to Najia Nasim, country director for a women's rights organization called Women for Afghan Woman, which also runs shelters.
Afghanistan's First Lady Rula Ghani has adopted a rare public profile since her husband, President Ashraf Ghani, took office in September. She is the first wife of an Afghan leader to routinely appear in public and has campaigned for women's issues and poverty alleviation.
In a speech to mark International Women's Day on Sunday, she said "women should be respected both inside and outside their homes and play an active role in society as doctors, engineers, soldiers, police officers."
She also called on the world to rethink the widely held view of Afghan women as victims.
Bahai would agree. The pioneering taxi driver sees more and more young women attending school, graduating college and living their own lives, as she has done.
"They are building the confidence to live independently. Step by step everything is going to be all right," she says. "My message for Afghan women is to stand up for yourselves, set goals and achieve them, and help to make Afghanistan a happy place to live."
O'Donnell reported from Kabul, Afghanistan
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