By Shambhavi Saxena:
Almost all my memories of trucks trundling down the roadways have carried the stern faces of men at the lofty window of the driver’s seat. All the buses to and from my South Delhi school were manned by, well, men. And just as I took the clumps of tinsel hanging from the side-view mirrors of buses and trucks as a fact of life, so too did it appear that only men drove buses and trucks.
Out in ‘the West’, the place we’re told makes leaps and bounds in human development indices, women truck drivers are not unusual. They make up only 6% of the truck driver population in the US, but Go-By-Truck Global News estimates that that’s about 2,00,000 of them. While many of these women do run into surprised exclamations, they can pursue a career in transport without too much of a hitch. There’s even agencies that specifically hire women truck drivers.
But here in South Asia, the idea of a woman at the helm of a truck is almost unthinkable.
Which is why 53-year-old Shamim Akhtar’s story is so important. Akhtar has been called Pakistan’s first woman truck driver, a title that she wears with pride, and also a sense of responsibility. She took on the job – as most people take on jobs – in order to support her family. Simply by manoeuvring a large truck over long distances in Pakistan, Akhtar is shattering several incorrect and restrictive notions about women in the country, and South Asian society in general.
Large machinery and vehicles – some even go so far as to describe the as muscular – have long been thought of as “boys’ toys” or things that only men were someone ‘inherently’ and ‘naturally’ capable of handling. So when a woman is seen driving a truck just as well as any other truck driver, the association between male-ness and trucks becomes terribly weakened. It’s also Shamim Akhtar’s enterprising attitude that is worth admiring. Not wanting to be a burden on her children after her husband’s death, she completely turns the equation around, with respect to the kind of life widows are expected to lead – usually a life of helpless self-denial. With a steering wheel in her hands, she’s in control of more than just her truck or the road.
Seeing Akhtar at work is important because it destabilizes the sexual division of labour we are so used to seeing. Further, her example could lead women to seek work opportunities that were, due to social restrictions, not earlier open to them, and also help employers start hiring more women in these same positions. Oh! And not to forget, give both men and women the skills they need to do a variety of jobs equally well, and for equal pay!
Wanna know about more amazing women smashing stereotypes with their work? Read about how footballer Nadiya Nigahat is kicking down gender barriers in Kashmir!