Afghan women steer into male world of motoring

by AFP/Herve Bar, Jan 26, 2003 | Destinations: Afghanistan / Kabul

Kabul, Jan 26, 2003 - With one white-knuckled hand on the steering wheel, and another trembling the gearstick into reverse, a young Afghan woman quickly tugs back her veil for a rear view as she drives along a white line. Greety Nai Kbenn, a timid adolescent of 18, has just driven herself into the history books, one of 28 women to become the first in 14 years to take the national driving test.

Twelve among them have already passed a theoretical test organised by police and German non-governmental organisation Medica Mondiale, in a move unthinkable under the strict Islamic regimes of the past decade. Greety and her fellow learner drivers on Saturday hit the public highways of traffic-choked Kabul for a practical examination in a relatively quiet part of the city.

A white line on the road and a gaggle of battered traffic cones marked the test site along which candidates had to complete the simple task of driving 30 metres forward and reverse in a battered, stuttering, old Toyota taxi. Three police officers in faded Soviet-style uniforms watched over the examination against a backdrop of buildings gutted by Afghanistan's years of conflict and the macabre sight of a bullet-pocked aircraft wreckage.

Intrigued by the unusual spectacle of women driving in a country where they are still largely hidden from public, scores of male onlookers watched with amusement, mockery or amazement. A mob of journalists also added to the driving test stresses of the women, most of whom were married mothers working in government departments.

When the brief tests were completed without error, the motley audience applauded, but one false move -- a stall or bad swerve -- and the crowd broke into intimidating male guffaws. "Women driving, it's a good thing," said one onlooker, Sidik. His more sceptical neighbour conceded: "It is contrary to Islam, but why not," before finally concluding, "a woman must not drive, her place is at the back."

Would they let their wives or sisters drive in Kabul? "Impossible," they said emphatically.

Such attitudes are precisely why many women in Afghanistan, most of whom still wear the all-encompassing burkha veil in public, are eager to learn to drive, says Medica Mondiale's Rachel Wareham. "To be more independent, to control their own destiny, to have something for themselves, but also simply to avoid the daily sexual harassment when they go walking in the streets under their burkha."

"Unfortunately, it is very difficult for them to register at the driving examination centre, because many men there are opposed to the idea of women driving, this is why we have organised this driving course."

Delighted at passing the exam, new driver Khala said she had faced few obstacles in climbing behind the wheel. "I come from a cultivated and open family, so following the driving course was not a problem. On the contrary they were very proud of me."

"These women are very brave," said one police examiner. "In the jungle of Kabul's traffic they will have to face insults, humiliation, spitting... "But at least they don't have to wear their burkhas while they are driving."

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