Why you should care
A confluence of #MeToo–era resistance and market interests is driving a wave of women-specific ride-sharing services across Asia.
New Delhi–based Shailja Mittal had hired a cab driver to take her 11-year-old daughter to school. But one day, when he didn’t show up and sent another man instead, the mother in her decided to take charge. The city routinely ranks in polls as among the most unsafe in the world for women, and a worried Mittal drove her daughter to school herself. But she didn’t stop there. The incident sowed the seeds for Koala Kabs, a ride-hailing service the 34-year-old launched in June 2017, with an entirely female team of drivers catering only to female passengers.
The startup is among a fast-growing series of ride-sharing services across Asia that are either emerging or reshaping themselves to offer safe travel options to women as they increasingly step out of homes into public spaces that are often still unsafe for them. For some, it’s an act of resistance coinciding with the consciousness of the #MeToo era. For others, there’s the economic incentive of an untapped market, as even the most conservative societies like Saudi Arabia gradually give women more rights.
In Pakistan, Pink Taxi launched last year with a fleet of 15 drivers — all women. Dubai-based ride-sharing giant Careem has registered more than 2,000 female drivers across Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam in Saudi Arabia in just 15 months since the country lifted its ban on female drivers in September 2017, says its co-founder Abdulla Elyas. The company has pledged to hire 20,000 female drivers — it calls them Captainahs — by 2020 across its operations in 15 countries, mostly in West Asia and Pakistan. SheJek, a “sharia-compliant” motorbike-sharing service for women with only female drivers, launched in Bandung, Indonesia, in the summer of 2018, and already has 27,000 registered users. Obon, in Bangladesh, started earlier this year and recruited 50 female drivers in its first three months.
There is a big demand [for women-only ride-sharing services].
Shailja Mittal, founder, Koala Kabs
The giants in the industry are scrambling too, to better portray themselves as sensitive to women’s safety concerns. Uber in March this year introduced an emergency button that directly calls 911 if pressed. GrabHitch — the car-pooling service that Grab, Southeast Asia’s largest ride-sharing service, offers — lets passengers choose between male and female drivers. A Grab spokesperson tells me that the company has “proactively” expanded its safety features since its 2012 launch, including in-car dash cameras and driver authentication through selfies.
And at the opposite end of the ride-sharing spectrum, fledgling newbies like Koala Kabs are only getting more ambitious. The firm started with seven drivers and now has 15. By the end of 2019, Mittal wants to have 75 female drivers.
“There is a big demand,” says Mittal.
As a concept, ride-sharing services catering specifically to women aren’t restricted to Asia. There’s Little Cab in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria; Shebah in Australia; WomensTaxi in South Africa; FemiTaxi in Brazil and DriveHER in Canada, for instance. In the U.S., there’s Boston-based Safr — which has now spread to other American cities and beyond, as far as Pakistan — that, like Grab, allows customers to choose male or female drivers.
But even in a world where crimes against women are common in most countries, Asian cities stand out: In a 2017 Thomson Reuters poll, eight of the 20 cities most unsafe for women were in Asia. And ride-sharing apps haven’t been immune. In August this year, a driver with Chinese taxi-hailing giant Didi Chuxing was accused of the rape and murder of a 20-year-old in Wenzhou, in eastern China. It was the second such incident in a span of a few months in the country. In India in December 2014, a 27-year-old woman was raped by her Uber driver. In Malaysia in June last year, a Grab driver was arrested for rape of a female passenger. While Uber has had instances of drivers assaulting passengers in the West too, there’s a second dynamic that’s also at play in more conservative societies.
(In the above video, Sonia Singh, a Koala Kabs driver in New Delhi, tells OZY’s Maroosha Muzaffar about the sexism she faces daily — from parking attendants telling her she can’t park to male Uber and Ola drivers who react weirdly on seeing a woman driver. Credit: Maroosha Muzaffar)
Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in many Asian societies that the notion of their wives, sisters or mothers traveling only with other women actually appeals to many men. That’s in sharp contrast to the criticism platforms like Safr have faced in the U.S., where many believe the app violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of gender unless sex is a “bona fide occupational qualification.”
This might be part of the reason why Asian markets are emerging as particularly lucrative for ride-sharing services targeted at women. “We have had an overwhelming response from women in the kingdom [Saudi Arabia] from the moment we opened up the registration platform for trainings until now,” says Careem’s Elyas. But women themselves often feel safer with others of their gender, says Mittal. “Let’s be honest, a female passenger feels more comfortable when a woman is driving the cab,” she says.
For many women, these cab services are also offering crucial employment opportunities. Every morning at 4 am, Sonia Singh, 28, starts preparing for the day ahead. Wearing a yellow T-shirt with green trousers, she is in her car by 6 am, waiting for regular passengers. Singh, who lives in a suburban Delhi village called Burari, started working with Koala Kabs nine months ago. She underwent a 15-day self-defense training course in the city. When I ask her if it irks her when male drivers on the road unnecessarily blare horns at her, she insists she doesn’t react to them. “I focus on the road and my driving,” she says. What about when another male-driven cab overtakes her? “In the course, we are even taught how to maintain our calm,” she says.
Not everyone agrees that avoiding men — as a female passenger or a driver — is the wisest approach for women’s emancipation. By segregating genders, many argue, one stops holding men accountable for inappropriate behavior around women. “As a feminist, I don’t believe in this ghettoization of women,” says Snehal Velkar, a program coordinator with Akshara Center, a Mumbai-based women’s rights nonprofit. “We don’t want women to live in this cocoon in the name of protection and safety.” But she concedes that in the short run, these services might help more women step out of their homes. It’s also unclear how these ride-sharing apps will respond to an increasing set of passengers who may identify themselves as genderqueer.
But those long-term questions aren’t holding women like Singh back. She already feels empowered. Her job, she says, has helped her believe that women can do whatever they want to do. And that “pitrasatta [patriarchy] can no longer make me feel unsure or unwanted.”