Young, veiled and free: Meet 'Delhi's only woman Uber driver'
In the backdrop of security-related suspicions associated with the cab service Parveen's large green eyes peeping out from her trendy hijab, hold promise.
"Today in the morning I dropped two young boys to Anand Vihar," says Zamarrud Parveen, a pleasant surprise in her black-and-white hijab and bright yellow salwar kameez behind the wheel during my last Uber ride. "They started talking to me and asked where I was from. I told them I grew up in Bijnor, UP (Uttar Pradesh)." She changes gears and breaks into a proud chuckle. "They said, 'Seriously?! We're also from there, but we didn't think any girl from there would ever choose this profession.' I just laughed and asked them why. I said I loved driving! They had no idea what to say after that."
The spirited 21-year-old says she is presently the only woman driver at Uber in Delhi and has been with the company for two months now. In the backdrop of the infamy and security-related suspicion associated with the cab service - given an incident of rape, sexual harassment and the general misbehaviour of male drivers with female passengers - Parveen's mugshot with large green eyes peeping out from behind her trendy hijab, pops up on the app, with promise.
"I love the niqab. I've always worn it," she says. "I usually wear a full burqa and niqab to college and everywhere, but while driving I only wear the niqab with ordinary clothes because it becomes difficult to drive," adds Parveen, who is simultaneously pursuing a BA pass course from Jamia Millia Islamia and hopes to one day complete her MA and teach Islamic Studies, her favourite subject. "When I told my college friends about my job as a taxi driver, they didn't believe me. Because of the way I am in college - always in a full burqa and niqab and all," she says. "They only believed me when I showed them my visiting card. But they were really happy."
Parveen grew up in a conservative mohalla in Bijnor and lived there until she graduated from the eighth grade, from Muslim Kudrat Girls Intercollege. She moved to Delhi, along with her mother and three younger sisters (Zoya, 19 and married, Shafaq, 12 and Ufaq, 10) and presently lives on rent in a one-room home where her father, a construction labourer had lived for 20 years. After graduating from school, Parveen was encouraged by her mother to learn how to drive and enrolled herself at Sakha Consulting Pvt Ltd. "My family is very supportive. My mother always wanted to learn how to drive, but couldn't because she grew up in a conservative background... and culture. But she told me, 'So what if I couldn't drive? You must.'"
Parveen chose to take the job at Uber because they were offering to pay her a higher salary than her employers at Sakha. "I had a commercial licence so they were happy to take me," she says. The country can expect more women like Parveen since Uber is working on recruiting close to 50,000 women drivers, who are presently being trained by the organisation, iCare Life. "They will be footing the bill to get them training and licences - learners', permanent and commercial," says Parveen, who enjoys her weekdays on the road. "This job is very convenient, if I have some personal work I can just go offline, finish my work and go back online." She usually logs in at 7am, goes off between noon and 4pm and officially logs out for the day by around 7 or 8pm. This routine, she says, allows her to do namaz five times a day and spend time with her family.
The once shy, young girl, instructed as a child, as most girls in her neighbourhood were, never to speak to people or leave the house, felt liberated in Delhi and claims the course at Sakha helped her become exponentially more confident. "When I was young I couldn't speak to or even stand in front of people. In Delhi, I spoke to more people, Sakha gave me training in self grooming, English classes, self defence and that really helped me open up." The course at Sakha also had a week of law classes, in which Parveen learned different acts and "my rights out in the world and at home".
But though Parveen has the support of her family, breaking out of an orthodox Muslim community was something her mother bravely battled. Ghazala Parveen defied all odds (and a disapproving mother-in-law) to educate herself and her three daughters. She graduated from class 10 after marrying her husband Habib-ur-Rahman and conceiving her eldest daughter Parveen. "You know what people think of women - by 18 or 19, get her married and that's her whole life. Just chulha, chaaka, bachche, that's it," says Parveen. "But my mother was just completely different. The amount of turmoil she's been through in her sasural, I don't think anyone else would be able to. Her mother-in-law didn't like girls at all. But my 'abbu' always wanted to have daughters." Parveen's three younger sisters all study in an English medium school near their home in Madanpur Khadar in Kalindi Kunj.
Being a lady taxi driver in a veil is not the only power statement Parveen is making. She's also breaking the sexist stereotype associated with women behind the wheel. "During training, my sir used to say 'jab tak gaadi thukegi nahi, seekhoge nahi (you won't learn how to drive until you bang the car)'," she says. "I used to say 'aisa kisne bola hai'. In the three years I have been driving I haven't even touched another car with my car; no scratch, nothing." She smirks, "Bhagaai bhi bohot hai. (I've driven very fast too)."
Parveen is happy with the response she's got from passengers so far. "Most male passengers remain calm and silent. I don't think they have anything to say," she says. "Others are friendly and speak to me nicely. They definitely say this is the first time they've seen a lady driver. I love hearing that."
The ambitious and dynamic Parveen is a powerhouse of resistance and part of a new generation of formidable women. Riding the wave of defiance her mother set in motion, Parveen is chatty and respectful, polite and witty. She is firm in her beliefs ("I have been allowed to even have a love marriage, but I'd prefer to be in an arranged marriage so my family can intervene if I have any marital trouble) and determined to achieve her goals ("I want to learn and when I become a teacher, I one day want to give other people the opportunity to learn"). At 21, her salary of Rs 15,000 per month, smacks full in the face every "how can you even educate the girl child" taunt from ladies in Bijnor. And her resilience is truly inspiring.
As she drives aggressively through the barriers of patriarchy, Parveen - who once successfully juggled her job, fasting for ramzan, an ailing mother and exams in college - says, "I love driving on the highway. It's liberating when the car runs at 100-120km/h. I'm responsible for my own safety. And I absolutely love it."