By Zofeen T Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Braving whistles, catcalls and vulgar remarks, Karachi's female taxi drivers are determined to stay on the road to ferry women safely around the teeming city - from home to the office, to college and even to late night wedding parties.
Since March, women in Pakistan's commercial hub have been able to hail the pink taxis - called Paxis - by phone, app or simply by flagging one down on the street.
The women drivers say they have faced harassment from other road users, but will persevere with the service.
"This (harassment) that we face is the occupational hazard of this job. It's best to ignore such people, they will get used to sharing the roads with us!" said Shamina Bano, 43, a mother of grown-up sons and one of the drivers with the first ever gender-segregated taxi service.
Wearing a hot pink headscarf, Bano said she left her previous job as a personal secretary after her boss started making "untoward advances".
"Working in an all female environment feels so much more comfortable; I don't have to look over my shoulder anymore," she said.
The app asks potential riders the number of passengers and if there are any men accompanying them. If the man is between 12 and 70 years old, the request will be turned down.
Mehreen Faizan, 28, also a Paxi driver, had initially applied to work for another taxi service. "When I found out I'd have to chauffeur male clients as well, my husband was not very happy about it. He then suggested I apply here," she said.
Commuting in the sweltering city of 20 million is often an ordeal for women. A report by Karachi's Urban Resource Center found most female commuters experience some form of sexual harassment while using public transport.
And before the pink taxis, getting a cab in Karachi could also be unpleasant for women.
From sitting in "messy and smelly cars" to being driven by drivers who are lost but refuse to use the GPS system, to being stared at through the rear view mirror or driven too fast, there is a long list of complaints women commuters have against male taxi drivers.
Women drivers, however, are careful and happy to accept directions, said regular pink taxi users.
"It's very reassuring and comfortable," said Sobia Athar, a college lecturer, who uses the service regularly despite it being a bit more expensive than other taxis.
READY FOR EXPANSION
Bano said during the wedding season from December to March she is busy shuttling women to festivities which may continue till very late at night.
Nuzhat Siddiqi, an environmentalist and working mother said she prefers the idea of women drivers for her family.
"I would certainly not be too keen to send kids and young maids or teenaged daughters with male taxi drivers alone," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By the end of this year the company would have doubled its fleet of cars from 15 at its launch to 30.
And Paxis are soon to appear on the streets of Sukkur in Sindh province and then to Peshawar close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, said Shaikh M. Zahid, the founder of the service.
Peshawar lies in the highly conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where strict purdah is observed.
"It has a much higher ratio of educated women, but due to lack of a safe transport system, their mobility is greatly compromised and their full potential to be productive citizens gets somewhat lost," said Zahid.
"I got very good vibes from informal talks I've been conducting with women there who say they would love having women drivers ferry them across the city." said Zahid, who has also held informal talks with religious leaders to explain the advantages of a women-only transport service.
The challenge is finding enough female drivers.
"It was initially difficult to convince parents and families to let their womenfolk take this up in Karachi," said Zahid.
"Today, these same women have become such strong role models for others and the response has been amazing."
(Reporting by Zofeen T Ebrahim; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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