In Yemen, women and men live largely separate lives. Weddings are strictly segregated affairs, restaurants have special sections for women and women have their own Internet cafes. Women do not mingle with men in public.
Except in taxis. There, women do, whether they like it or not. True, they sit in the back, but still in the intimate space of a car. This doesn’t seem logical. If so many places have separate facilities for women, then why are there no women-only taxis? Where is the pink taxi with a lady driver chatting with her lady customers?
"I hope with my whole heart that it will happen", says Belqis Mohammed, a young Yemeni woman. For her, being in a taxi with a male driver – or anywhere in the company of an unknown man - is awkward. "It is OK if you are with other people but alone, this is difficult."
Women complain of harassment by taxi drivers, or they feel unsafe. It is also a religious issue; it is simply not acceptable to be alone with a strange man. Men, on the other hand, often complain that they always have to drive their female relatives to weddings, shops and restaurants.
"I would also like to become a driver, no problem", says Belqis, who is from a conservative family. "There is no religious rule standing in the way of women as taxi drivers. They drive cars now too so why not taxis?" Women are allowed to drive in Yemen and especially in the capital Sana’a plenty of women can be seen behind the wheel.
Tradition vs law
In Yemen women are allowed to become taxi drivers – there are no laws to stop them obtaining the necessary licenses. Belqis has had a pink car as a screensaver since she started thinking about starting up a women-only taxi, but the realisation of her dream is still far away. Because while neither religious nor state laws stand in her way, tradition does.
"It is against tribal rules", say the women who are sitting in Caramella Candy, a woman-only coffee and beauty shop. Sipping from their coffees they shake their heads in disbelief. "Forbidden , they say. "Out of the question." They talk about women as drivers. Because here is the problem: sitting in a pink taxi is one thing, driving it another.
Niqab at the wheel
Belqis may be willing to become a driver, not every woman will. A woman’s family often determines where she is allowed to work. Socially preferred professions for women are teaching and medicine. Taxi driving is most definitely not. People, both men and women, give many different reasons for this, usually along the lines of ‘not acceptable to society’.
Some of the arguments are: What if they pick up men? What if the female drivers want to wear the niqab and male drivers can then use niqabs to pretend to be women? What if they have an accident on the way? Security is not good for male taxi drivers, let alone for female ones. People who do not like it may do strange things. Everybody carries a gun in this country.
"I would definitely not start a women’s taxi business now", says Abdulla al Qirbi, business developer for, among other things, a transportation company. "At least I would hold a survey first, to see how society reacts. And you would be surprised how the most open minded youth are all of a sudden against this idea."
Slow to change
Ali Jameel, student, is not one of them. "It is a great idea. and society will accept it. Look at how things have changed here. Ten years ago you hardly saw women in the street, now they work in shops, restaurants everywhere. It is always like this in Yemen: at first everybody is against something, then it is accepted and then everybody does it."
Al Qirbi agrees that Yemenis eventually adapt to new ideas. But for now, he believes that tribal traditionalism stands in the way of women’s taxis. "Also, religious parties will be against it, and they have the power to stop it." However, in other conservative places like Sjarjah (one of the United Arab Emirates) it works. "There they are educated, here not. There, there is a working police system, here there isn't."
"One day, we will have it", believes student Ali Jameel. "With only women, the management, the maintenance, everything." Belqis hopes he is right, but she is not so sure. She has her own ideas about why people – especially men – are against the idea. "They use all kind of traditional and religious arguments, but they are simply afraid to lose their jobs."