The (literal) road to Gender Equality
Abstruse real-life meets gender economics musings: learning how to drive in Delhi edition
So I passed my driving test in Delhi this weekend. My father has been after my life for five years now to fix my “mobility problem”. Now that I am finally living in one place in India for more than a year I didn’t have an excuse. He also shipped his old car from Kolkata to Delhi to push me to get it done. For the past two months, practicing driving on a learners’ license and freaking out about the driving test has taken over my life. My friends and colleagues know. But, this whole time I have been thinking about gender, because obviously.
Rewind to Alice Evans and Shruti Rajagopalan’s fantastic podcast episode from a few weeks back when Alice points out that India has a stronger cultural preference for female seclusion than other comparable low or low and middle-income countries (for instance, Bangladesh in the context on the podcast).
Fixing women’s mobility problem, scratch that, fixing the monopoly on mobility by men in India, is at the heart of women finally partaking in the returns from economic growth and rapid urbanization. Literal mobility interventions have proved promising in this vein. For instance, a study of the Bihar Cycle Program found that providing cycles to girls, in Bihar in 2006, did close the gender gap in secondary schools. Muralidharan et al. (2006) found that the program increased girls’ age-appropriate enrolment in secondary school by 32 per cent and reduced the gender gap by 40 per cent. Martinez et al. (2018) report that extending public transport (bus rapid transit and elevated rail system) in Lima increased female labor supply. Seki and Yamanda (2020) also find similar results for female labor supply only as a result of rollout of the Delhi metro system. The mobility effects unlocked by public transit is obviously linked to how women are absent from the driver’s seat across India.
Suzanne Briere was famously the first woman in India to drive a car (Bombay, 1905). Suzanne was French and married to the industrialist Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (father of JRD Tata). Fast forward 88 years, and we have Vasathakumari of Tamil Nadu who was the first female commercial driver not only in India, but also Asia. She became a bus driver with Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation in 1993. A year later, I was born. Twenty six years later, I was struggling on the roads of Delhi with men often waving their fists at me for my too cautious, absolute lack of brashness on the streets. And should I even begin to tell you about the honking from the rich Delhi male youth in cars that take up the whole street.
It was terrifying but also exhilarating every time I got behind the wheel. I am only the second person in my immediate family to know how to drive a car, and you bet I am the first woman! Now, I have a remote, work-from-home job even without a pandemic. In India, that often gets mixed up with having a part-time job or a hobby especially if you’re a woman. So I have at times felt trapped at home partly because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. These experiences have made me think of women subjected to female seclusion because patrilocality. This proverbial secluded housewife in the heart of urban India has to depend on all kinds of men (husband, driver, Uber bhaiyya, Auto uncle) every time she needs or wants to get out.
Much like reproductive rights, India is gender equal on paper in terms of driving rights too. But also like reproductive rights, these rights do not get exercised to the fullest because of a number of cultural barriers that do not appear on paper. These experiences have also made me think about whether more women behind the wheels is a strong visual cue in India to shift the norms about female seclusion and mobility. Normalizing women in public spaces in India — behind the wheel, on her way to work, running errands etc. is important. But going by the numbers above, we have a long road to cover.
I’m going to end with the following beautiful quote by Fatema Mernissi because it couldn’t be more fitting
“A woman can walk miles without taking a single step forward. As a child born in a harem, I instinctively knew that to live is to open closed doors. To live is to look outside. To live is to step out. Life is trespassing.”
And now, I’ll wait for my license to arrive in the mail and go forth and enjoy my new found freedom. I can already anticipate the exhilaration from taking a break from the workday for a quick drive around Central Delhi — a woman out and about in the middle of the day just on a joyride.