Women of Kabul take the wheel in brave new drive for sexual equality

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The Independent Online

Kabul's chaotic roads are used to plodding camel-carts, smoke-belching lorries, and four-by-fours packed with armed men threatening road rage. Now they have a new, and for Afghan motorists, truly exotic sight: women drivers.

Kabul's chaotic roads are used to plodding camel-carts, smoke-belching lorries, and four-by-fours packed with armed men threatening road rage. Now they have a new, and for Afghan motorists, truly exotic sight: women drivers.

A few brave females have shed their burqas to venture into the driving seat - for decades here the ultimate preserve of the macho Afghan male - thanks to the tuition of a mechanic-turned-instructor who has opened the city's first driving school for women. Delawar Mamozai struck upon the revolutionary idea of teaching women to drive several years ago, and after teaching just one woman in the first five years of his venture he has had a flood of students in the past few months.

"It's not easy for women to learn how to drive in Kabul," he admitted in his grubby classroom, filled with dismembered engine parts and road signs pinned to the walls as teaching aids. "They feel embarrassed and shy when they start, and get a lot of whistles. People shout at them and drivers try to block the cars with their own vehicles. It takes some courage for a woman to go out on the roads the first time."

Mr Mamozai proudly shows off a certificate he grants after 36 hours tuition, with a slot for the student's name, after Mr or Ms. He has taught about 60 women to drive in the past six months, ignoring the taunts of disgruntled male friends who believe women should not be allowed to drive themselves.

He said: "The police came round and asked us not to teach ladies when we started. But we obtained a certificate from the head of the traffic department giving us permission and the police have left us alone since. Of course, we have to ask ladies not to wear their burqas, but most of them are modern-minded so that is not a problem."

One of his proud students is Hosria Jalalzada, a librarian in her fifties, who is now encouraging her son to take driving lessons. She said: "There are a lot of women in Afghanistan who are interested in driving but they are not allowed to by their husbands or their families. It is not only driving cars; women would like to like to be pilots as well."

Mrs Jalalzada said she had not encountered much hostility from male motorists, unlike some of the younger students, although she admitted she gets a lot of stares. She has developed a poor view of her fellow Afghan motorist. "They are terribly dangerous, driving too fast, going the wrong way up one-way streets and round roundabouts, and ignoring traffic lights and signals," she said. "Men are reckless drivers; women are much better, we are careful and obey the rules."

Mr Mamozai agreed that he faced an uphill struggle to inculcate some road sense into some of the wildest learner- drivers on the planet. He said: "In Afghanistan, everybody drives their own way, unfortunately, and there are a lot of accidents." His driving school is playing its bit in improving things but the instructor said the official driving test system did not help.

"About 90 to 95 per cent of my students are awarded our school's certificate, then they have to sit the government test. But driving skills don't count for very much. By that stage, it is mainly a matter of paying bribes. We have heard of people who have been given a certificate without sitting in a car, or visiting a government office. They just send somebody with the baksheesh to an official."

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