Riffat Sheraz stands out in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, as she rides on her motorcycle with a man seated behind her. Women rarely ride motorcycles here, much less with unknown men. But driving others around is what Sheraz does every day. What was once taboo is now emerging as an employment opportunity for Pakistani women like Sheraz. Their unlikely employer? Ride-hailing apps.
Ride-sharing has swept across Pakistan over the past five years as smartphones and high-speed internet have become ubiquitous, with 75 percent of Pakistanis surveyed by employment website Rozee.pk saying that they use a ride-hailing app at least once a month. It’s particularly popular with women. Female users hail 70 percent of the rides using Careem, a Dubai-based service that, along with Uber, dominates ride-sharing in Pakistan.
But even as these services liberated women who could afford cabs by offering them a way to get around safely that did not exist before, during the initial wave of the apps, men continued to drive the vast majority of the cars, rickshaws and motorcycles in Pakistan’s sharing economy. That’s now changing: Ride-sharing is offering women in Pakistan more than just a safe transportation option.
Pink Taxi, whose customers are exclusively women, launched in Karachi last year with 15 female drivers. Boston-based Safr, which also operates as a “by women, for women” service in the U.S., launched in Lahore and Multan in March with women making up nearly 40 percent of the drivers. And while Riffat Sheraz is the only female motorcycle driver for Careem, the firm has hired nearly 200 female car drivers and offers better bonus packages to them — compared to male applicants — in a bid to boost recruitment, says Junaid Iqbal, the company’s managing director in Pakistan.
The understanding that women can drive, and drive strangers as well, that’s new for society.
Syed Gilani, Safr CEO
Hiring women for a role in the driver’s seat is a challenge in Pakistan, where women constitute only 22 percent of the total workforce. But sharpening competition between ride-hailing companies for a female customer base is providing an economic ballast to the investment in female drivers.
“The understanding that women can drive, and drive strangers as well, that’s new for society,” says Safr CEO Syed Gilani.
Most family-owned cars in Pakistan are used primarily by men. As a result, women often need to take public transportation, but many hesitate to do so, fearing harassment. One study found that at least 82 percent of women have experienced harassment at bus stops in Punjab, the province that includes Lahore. In Karachi, the seaside commercial city considered the most liberal in the nation, 55 percent of women who use buses report sexual harassment.
For ride-sharing services, that mobility challenge is an opportunity to offer safer rides to women. Most conduct extensive background checks on applicants, train them how to treat female passengers with respect, give them a number to call in emergencies and offer real-time GPS trackers for passengers to share with their families.
But even with those safeguards, many women remain uncomfortable in cars driven by men they don’t know. Ayesha Mysorewala, a Karachi-based program consultant with the international development firm DAI, says she uses Careem weekly but avoids it when traveling long distances or at night. Hira Nazir, an assistant manager at Gerry’s Dnata, an air service provider, says bleakly, “Honestly, nothing is safe in Pakistan.”
That’s why ride-sharing firms are competing to recruit women as drivers, to put female passengers more at ease. Just how much of a social barrier they’re up against became clear to Pink Taxi when, earlier this year, the company attempted a soft launch in Peshawar, a more conservative city than Karachi. The team realized quickly that it needed support from law enforcement, government officials and religious parties to ensure the safety of its drivers. It has put its expansion on hold while it lobbies these groups. Pink Taxi CEO Fizzah Khan, who is from the region, says empowering women by encouraging them to drive is “the biggest taboo.”
“We don’t want any backlash,” Khan says. “We are already breaking another stereotype, by putting women on the road, so we can’t mess with the religious scholars.”
It isn’t easy for her female drivers, even in Karachi, says Khan. They face constant harassment. The service requires all drivers to undergo self-defense training and to cover their heads as a precaution, even though that’s not a legal requirement in Pakistan. “People will pass by and say vulgar words to them,” Khan says.
To be less conspicuous on her motorcycle, Sheraz, the Careem driver, tucks her hair into a hooded jacket and chooses gender-neutral clothes. But she shrugs off the very real risks she faces, from harassment to physical danger to conservative backlash. “I feel like as long as God is protecting you, a human can’t do anything,” she says.
Iqbal worries, though. When he hired the first woman to drive a Careem car two years ago, he added his cellphone number to her speed dial. “We were nervous. It’s like, we’re doing this, but we know we shouldn’t,” he says.
But these concerns are what make the model work with Pakistani women already battling taboos. At 38, the unmarried Sheraz is in a minority in Pakistan. Being single, however, allows her to take a job married women might face more obstacles in taking. “No man would want another man to sit behind their woman,” Sheraz says.
Pink Taxi, which sees itself as a women’s empowerment organization, specifically recruits widows, divorcées and women who need to earn an income but are not educated enough to get a white-collar job. “They can come with us and do a highly secure job,” Khan says.
Saira Bano, a 32-year-old divorcée who lives with her son in Karachi, became a Pink Taxi driver last year, after attempting private tutoring to make ends meet. She wants to earn money and save for her son so she can “give him a good education” and help him “stand on his own feet.” It’s a philosophy Bano lives by. Her family encouraged her to come live with them, but “I thought that I should not depend on others,” she says. She isn’t giving up the wheel — not in the car, and not in her life.