Everyone she passes — each taxi driver, every man and burqa-clad woman — is looking at Sofia. The stares and glares are no surprise: She’s female, she’s driving, and she’s just 14 years old.
Women drivers are so rare in Afghanistan that it’s a head-turning, hand-pointing shock for most people who see one. The license bureau reports that of the more than 17,000 licenses issued in the Kabul area last year, only 85 went to women.
Abdul Shokoor Ziaee opened Bakhtan Technical and Driving Course school after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, which had banned women from driving. He has seen a small increase recently in the number of women at his school, where colorful traffic signs cover the walls and a greasy, disassembled car engine sits on the front table.
“More women should learn how to drive because men and women have equal rights. The other thing is that Afghanistan is developing, moving forward,” he says.
That open-mindedness begins at home. He has taught his wife to drive — “If I get sick she can take me to the hospital” — and his three daughters, the youngest of whom is Sofia.
Her head wrapped in a bright orange scarf, she gets behind the wheel of the family Corolla, with her father in the passenger seat directing her down some of Kabul’s less-traveled streets.
The 14-year-old woman exudes a general giddiness. “I like driving so much. It’s not hard,” she says in the halting English she learned while at school in Pakistan.
Although she has been driving for about a year, she won’t be legal until she’s 19, Afghanistan’s driving age.
Taliban curbed women’s rights
Female drivers weren’t always such a rarity. Women’s rights were relatively advanced during the 1980s, when a Soviet-backed government ruled Afghanistan, and women could then drive in Kabul, though not in the provinces.
In the 1990s, the Taliban took over.
Today Afghan women drivers tend to be employees of foreign aid agencies and come from wealthier, educated families. Ziaee estimates that of the 3,000 students who have taken his 40-day, $60 course over the last three years, only 100 of them were female.
Sofia already knows she prefers automatics to stick shifts, and that her presence behind the wheel will invite strangers’ stares. She thinks she can read the minds of the men gazing down from a passing truck — “They have a problem with me driving. They’re thinking, ‘She’s a girl, how can she drive?”’
Although many more might like to drive, husbands, fathers and brothers have the final say, and invariably accompany learners to their first class to give their approval of the school, Ziaee said.
Then there’s the question of safety — many female drivers report being harassed.
“Afghanistan is not yet at the place where we were 30 years ago. Even with lots of development we are seeing women denied an active place in society in every field,” said Parwana Wafa, a 38-year-old who learned how to drive three months ago.
Wafa said she would never drive outside the capital. Even in Kabul she has to contend with men who’ll drive straight at her.
“Why? They may enjoy disturbing the women. Maybe they don’t like women drivers,” she said in the offices of the printing company she owns.
Sofia’s father says “A lot of people are against female drivers,” especially in conservative regions where women are expected to stay indoors.
‘Aren’t you ashamed?’
An incident in the western city of Herat a couple of weeks ago is a cautionary tale. Two motorcyclists who spotted a woman driver buzzed around her and cut her off, said Gulam Sarwar Haydari, deputy police chief of Herat province.
“They yelled at her, ’Why are you driving? Aren’t you ashamed?”’ he said.
Police jailed the two men for three hours.
“They were stupid boys,” Haydari said.
Even after the Taliban fell, Herat’s conservative former governor kept on enforcing the ban against female drivers for three years.
Sofia has not yet suffered any harassment. She executes a snappy U-turn at her father’s command, beams and declares herself “the luckiest girl in the world” for being allowed to drive at such a young age.
She answers a question before it can be finished. “Your father is very ...”
“Cool,” she says. “He’s a freedom man.”