Bamiyan Panorama

Bamiyan Panorama

Friday, March 06, 2015

Afghanistan’s first female taxi driver

Afghanistan’s first female taxi driver a disgust to male passengers 

Sara Bahai, 40, grew up in a world where women were not allowed the freedom to go to school, work, have a career or dream. But since the fall of the Taliban, she’s been working as a taxi driver in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Sara Bahai, 40, says the idea that a woman driving a cab is sacrilege is 'ludicrous.'Mustafa Najafi/Cover Asia Press
Afghanistan's first female taxi driver is a hero to other women in her city, while men who jump into her cab are disgusted.
Sara Bahai, 40, has been a taxi driver on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan, for 10 years since the fall of the Taliban.
She grew up in a world where women were not allowed the freedom to go to school, work, have a career or dream.
But Sara always believed there was an independent life for her to live.
As soon as the opportunity came for her to do a professional driving course she signed up, passed and bought herself a car. Now, she is earning £5 a day driving members of the public around her bustling city.
And in a country where the first democratic presidential elections are currently being counted, Sara is excited about a new positive future for herself and other Afghan women.
Amazingly, Sara Bahai is the first female cabbie in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.Mustafa Najafi/Cover Asia Press
Sara said: 'When women get into my car and see a woman driver they start smiling and giggling, they say they're very proud of me. I think they're glad at least one woman is living an independent life. In my taxi, they talk freely. They feel comfortable and talk about families, husbands and crack jokes.'
But not all Sara's customers are as accepting.
'My male customers are never happy with me. They believe it's very un-Islamic for a woman to drive - they still have very primitive thinking. They accuse me of setting a bad example for women and nasty things come out of their mouths. But I do not get depressed; I tell them exactly what I think. A woman driving a car is not nonreligious and their opinions are ludicrous.'
Sara has very dark memories of her childhood. She recalls many tears and heartache from the years of war and persecution and her father was killed in action 36 years ago.
Growing up, it was easier for Sara to live as a boy and act as a tomboy because it was so difficult being a female in a Taliban run country.
The cabbie doesn't get angry with her disgusted male customers; she just tells them what she thinks.Mustafa Najafi/Cover Asia Press
'As a kid I was a real tomboy. I used to wear boy's clothes. No one could tell I was a girl. But my parents were very supportive of my personality and gave me the freedom to live my life as I wanted. And in a very conservative Afghanistan I was very lucky to have parents like that.'
Sara never had any interest in dolls growing up and always played with her brother's toy cars instead.
'I used to make cars with match boxes because my father could not afford many toys,' Sara remembers, who has never worn the all-blue Burka the Taliban had made compulsory for women on the rare occasions they left their home.
And when Sara finally got behind a wheel and drove a car for the first time she felt as if she was flying.
She said: 'The first time I drove a car I felt as if someone had given me wings. I cannot express the feeling; it was a beautiful. It was my neighbor's car and I drove for just a few miles around our neighborhood but it was enough - I was hooked. After that I was determined to learn to drive and buy my own car.'
While the majority of the country celebrated the fall of the Taliban in 2002, Sara quickly signed up for a two-week professional driving course with the Chief Officer of the Traffic Police and applied for a license to legally start driving her red Toyota Corolla DX.
Then, Sara decided to make money for her family and become a full time taxi driver.
Sara said: 'When people first saw me as a taxi driver they laughed at me. But it did not deter me. I was confident about my decision. I wanted to show the world that Afghanistan women are not born to just get married and have children. We can work, look after ourselves and be independent too.'
During the Taliban rule, between 1996 and 2001, they had imposed a strict version of Islamic law banning all Afghan women from work and education and had made the Burqa compulsory for women to wear outside their home.
While most women in Afghanistan are married by the age of 22, Sara decided not to and instead dedicated her life to caring for her mother Bibi, 60, and help her sister care for her seven children, after the death of her husband in 2000 during the war against the Taliban regime.
Sara Bahai has dedicated her life to caring for her mother Bibi, 60, to helping her sister care for her seven children, after the death of her husband in 2000 during the war against the Taliban.Mustafa Najafi/Cover Asia Press
'I've had many men ask me to marry them but I've never agreed. I have no regrets. I broke the marriage rule in my family because there was no one to feed us or make money so I had to step in as the strong one.'
Amongst Sara's six sisters and seven brothers, Sara is the only one not to marry. But Sara has watched her sisters in very unhappy marriages. So much so Sara adopted her sisters two sons, now 12 and 18 years old and studying in school, because her husband was a drug addict and couldn't provide for them. The boys were better off with Sara who was earning enough to feed and clothe them and get them an education.
'Marriage is not always the answer,' she said. 'All my sisters got married but look at them. Some are very unhappy. I have looked after myself and now I have my sisters children to care for.'
Sara is now famous in Maza-i-Sharif and she has become the favourite taxi driver of women passengers.
She doesn't even pay a mechanic to check her car; she does all the repairs herself. And makes even more money by buying and selling second hand cars.
Female passengers giggle when they see a woman behind the wheel, and tell Sara Bahai they are proud of her.Mustafa Najafi/Cover Asia Press
Sara admits she has been very lucky to have never faced any threats from the Taliban, but she knows many women who are too scared to take one step outside their home.
'Women have seen harsh years under the Taliban rule but now it's time we had freedom. Step by step it's improving. Even though Afghan women can now freely go to schools and work and open businesses, there are still a huge percentage of women who are unaware of their rights. There is still a lot to be done to improve the lives of Afghan women and I want to do all I can to help change that.'
With the general elections currently coming to a close Sara is expecting a huge change under the new President.
'The government should be paying huge attention to the peace and security of women. Women should be given bigger roles to play in our country. We should have the same rights as women across the world. I hope the government will come up with positive policies for change.'
Sara is now determined to contribute as much as she can to the prosperity of Afghan women - and she is doing that my starting her own driving school. She already has three female students learning to drive and she is getting more requests every day. She dreams of having a bustling driving school generating thousands of Afghan female taxi drivers of the future.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Delhi rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

Delhi rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back


In 2012 an Indian student was violently raped on a moving bus in Delhi and died of horrific internal injuries. Leslee Udwin spoke to one of the rapists on death row while spending two years making a film about the case. She came away shocked by India's treatment of women - but inspired by those seeking change.

The horrifying details of the rape had led me to expect deranged monsters. Psychopaths. The truth was far more chilling. These were ordinary, apparently normal and certainly unremarkable men.

On 16 December 2012, the 23-year-old woman had been to see a film, the Life of Pi, with a male friend. At 8.30pm they boarded an off-duty bus, with six men on board, five adults and a juvenile. The men beat the friend and each raped the woman in turn, before assaulting her viciously with an iron instrument.

Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus, described to me every detail of what happened during and after the incident. While prosecutors say the men took turns to drive the bus, and all took part in the rape, Singh says he stayed at the wheel throughout.

Along with three of the other attackers, Singh is now appealing against his death sentence. In 16 hours of interviews, Singh showed no remorse and kept expressing bewilderment that such a fuss was being made about this rape, when everyone was at it.

"A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," he said.

Mukesh Singh Mukesh Singh is one of five convicted of the crime - his brother Ram died in prison before the trial

"Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good."

People "had a right to teach them a lesson" he suggested - and he said the woman should have put up with it.

"When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after 'doing her', and only hit the boy," he said.

Chillingly, he went on: "The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won't leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, 'Leave her, she won't tell anyone.' Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death."

I had the long and shocking list of injuries the young woman had sustained, read out to him. I tried, really hard, to search for a glimmer of regret. There was none.

It would be easier to process this heinous crime if the perpetrators were monsters, and just the rotten apples in the barrel, aberrant in nature. Perhaps then, those of us who believe that capital punishment serves a purpose, and I am not among them, could wring their hands in relief when they hang.

For me the truth couldn't be further from this - and perhaps their hanging will even mask the real problem, which is that these men are not the disease, they are the symptoms.

My encounter with Singh and four other rapists left me feeling like my soul had been dipped in tar, and there were no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain.

One of the men I interviewed, Gaurav, had raped a five-year-old girl. I spent three hours filming his interview as he recounted in explicit detail how he had muffled her screams with his big hand.

He was sitting throughout the interview and had a half-smile playing on his lips throughout - his nervousness in the presence of a camera, perhaps. At one point I asked him to tell me how tall she was. He stood up, and with his eerie half-smile indicated a height around his knees.

When I asked him how he could cross the line from imagining what he wanted to do, to actually doing it - given her height, her eyes, her screams - he looked at me as though I was crazy for even asking the question and said: "She was beggar girl. Her life was of no value."

A sign reading "Enough is enough, no more violence"

These offences against women and girls are a part of the story, but the full story starts with a girl not being as welcome as a boy, from birth. When sweets are distributed at the birth of a boy, not of a girl. When the boy child is nourished more than the girl, when a girl's movements are restricted and her freedoms and choices are curtailed, when she is sent as a domestic slave to her husband's home… If a girl is accorded no value, if a girl is worth less than a boy, then it stands to reason there will be men who believe they can do what they like with them.

I spoke to two lawyers who had defended the murderers of the 23-year-old student at their trial, and what they said was extremely revealing.

"In our society, we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person," said one of the lawyers, ML Sharma.

"You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn't have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman."

The other lawyer, AP Singh, had said in a previous televised interview: "If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight."

He did not disown that comment when I put it to him. "This is my stand," he said. "I still today stand on that reply."

Gender-inequality is the primary tumour and rape, trafficking, child marriage, female foeticide, honour killings and so on, are the metastases. And in India the problem is not lack of laws - after all, India is a democracy and a civilised, rapidly developing country. The problem is implementation of them.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers absolute equal rights on women. The giving of dowry is a legal offence, but many families maintain the custom nonetheless. Until and unless the mindset changes, the cancer will thrive and continue to spread.

But what compelled me to leave my family and go to Delhi to make this film was not the rape itself, nor the horror of it. It was what followed.

Starting on the day after the rape, and for over a month, ordinary men and women came out on to the streets of India's cities in unprecedented numbers to protest. They braved a freezing December and a ferocious government crackdown of water cannons, baton charges, and teargas shells. Their courage and determination to be heard was extraordinarily inspiring.

Sign saying "This is not Hindustan this is Rapistan"

There was something momentous about their presence and perseverance - reminiscent to me of the crowds that had thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo - a gathering of civil society that demanded a conversation that was long overdue.

It occurred to me that, for all its appalling record of violence against women and relentless rapes, here was India leading the world by example. I couldn't recall another country, in my lifetime, standing up with such tenacity for women, for me. And I knew at once that I simply had to use whatever talents and skills I had, to amplify their cries of "enough is enough!" which were reverberating across the whole world.

As is often the case with extremely challenging endeavours where the human stakes are high, the main struggle for me was the emotional and psychological toll the work imposed.

When you look into the blackest recesses of the human heart, you cannot but be depressed and deeply disappointed. I woke one morning on the shoot, wet from head to toe, bathed in sweat and fear and my heart knocking against my ribcage. This was a panic attack. I phoned home thinking my husband would answer, but my 13-year-old daughter, Maya, did.

She immediately sensed I was in trouble. And when I told her, in tears, that I was coming home because this was too big for me, the mountain was just too high to scale, she said: "Mummy, you can't come home because I and my generation of girls is relying on you."

What carried me through, apart from Maya, was what had inspired me in the first place: the new-thinkers, especially among the youth, in India who want change and are clamouring for it. And I am absolutely optimistic that we are now on the cusp of change.