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When women take the bus, and drive it too

KARACHI: Besides driving one crazy with their wit and humour, they can drive almost anything … motorbikes, cars, buses including diesel hybrid, electric hybrid or fully electric. There are one-and-a-half dozen of them for now, undergoing training with the Sindh Mass Transit Authority (SMTA). Dawn had the good fortune of meeting with them at the Mehran Bus Depot in Malir on Thursday, just two classes before their much-awaited graduation on Jan 15.

Having started their training on Nov 1, 2023 they were all happy to be passing the first milestone. Most, with a few exceptions of course, will not be seen driving buses immediately.

According to the operations manager of the Peoples Bus Service, Abdul Shakoor, there is a time period of around three years needed for lots of practice.

“They have the learner’s licence, to be followed by the Light Transport Vehicle (LTV) licence, the Heavy Transport Vehicle (HTV) licence and the Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence that these drivers must acquire before driving the buses, which would take them approximately three years,” he said.

First batch of 18 female drivers to graduate next week

“These licences are given to the drivers after their passing the tests from the vehicle licence branch of the traffic police. You must understand that a bus driver is the custodian of so many lives. There will be no compromise or taking of risks when so many innocent lives of passengers are involved,” he pointed out.

Luckily, as mentioned earlier, this wouldn’t be the case for all as there are some very experienced drivers in the first batch also. According to Huma Ashar, who has led this programme as Gender Specialist at SMTA: “Although the requirement for a HTV licence is three years, involving other licences, there are some trainees who already have a LTV license.”

They would be Uzma Bibi and Amber Azeem.

Uzma shared that she had before this learned how to ride a motorbike and car and had also worked as a car driving instructor.

Asked what was different in driving these buses and ordinary driving, she said that driving a bus changes everything. “Even the steering wheel is so big. Then all these buses are automatic. You may think that would make driving them easier but it is not the case,” she said.

Amber Azeem, another experienced driver, who used to run a pick and drop van service for office going women, added to this by explaining that when carrying so much load in a long bus there are so many things to be taken into consideration. “There is the speed of the bus to be thought about. Because it has an impact on your passengers when you hit the brakes. The turning radius of such a long vehicle also needs expertise,” she said.

While agreeing with them, Ms Ashar said that they only need another two to three months of advance training for them to get used to such things before being put on the buses. Having watched their progress from the start when they arrived for basic training with the National Highways and Motorway Police at Maymar, she has confidence in their abilities.

“Our advertisements for women bus drivers got us an initial response from some 25 women. We facilitated them by paying them a stipend, we also paid them transport allowance besides providing them lunch during their daily classes at Maymar but still some seven of them could not go through the strenuous training for those first 45 days and dropped out. Those who completed that training were then brought to the Mehran Depot to be put on the buses from Dec 15,” she said.

“Mind you, this is only the first batch. For our next batches, these women will be the inspiration, the trailblazers. We also hope to induct transgenders for this job,” she said.

Meanwhile, in one of their final classes at Mehran Bus Depot, the women drivers, most possessing learners’ licences for now, were found revising all the bus routes around Karachi with their instructors Afaq Ahmed and Qaiser Shah before their practical, which meant they all had to take turns behind the wheel of the buses.

Knowing well about the long road lying ahead for most of them, the women drivers, who belonged to various ages, were all in high spirits as they joked with each other.

Faiza Abdul Sattar looked like the youngest among them but it turned out that she was not. “She only looks young,” pointed out Kiran Iftikhar.

Hearing this Faiza said: “Yes, I’m Kiran’s mother-in-law.”

“But if my mother-in-law looks so young then I am not born yet!” Quipped Kiran as everyone burst out laughing.

It turned out that Faiza was 21. The youngest in the group was 18-year-old Aqsa Kalhoro, a pre-medical student. Asked what was to become of her studies if she was going to become a bus driver, she said that maybe she would become a bus doctor. “Or a good bus mechanic,” she corrected herself.

Most women drivers had another life before they hopped on the buses as drivers.

Humaira Mustafa, a working mother, said that she used to teach students how to read the Holy Quran for nine years, before becoming a schoolteacher.

Shafaq Shafiq, another young mother, was hoping to continue her education as she also wanted to go for a Master’s course at the University of Karachi. Uzma said that she had also done beautician and restaurant management courses.

All said that they found out that SMTA was looking for women bus drivers either through the newspaper advertisements, the social media or through friends who had seen such announcements.

Source: Dawn