Women on Wheel Bangladesh is a women drivers’ community for those with self-driven cars and bikes, launched in 2022. At present, WoW Bangladesh has 800 members breaking the ‘women can’t drive’ myth, with more joining every day.
Although she has had a driving licence since 2016, Kazi Farhana only started driving in 2020. It was the year of the Covid-19 lockdown and private car chauffeurs were not available.
When she started driving to her office in Tongi via the highway all by herself – without a chauffeur or a family member beside her – she realised this was easier than what she was told all her life.
“I realised driving was very easy; it’s the society and others who instil a fear in us that something bad will happen or the car will get damaged etc,” she said, adding, “not only in our country, women drivers are mocked worldwide. But women do so many complicated things, and ‘women can’t drive’ is just a myth.”
While gaining confidence in driving, Farhana also realised the need for an all-female community to discuss all things related to driving. While men have many such platforms, women do not always feel comfortable seeking help from those platforms, especially on social media where derogatory remarks about women are commonplace.
Along with two of her close friends as co-founders, Farhana started Women on Wheel Bangladesh, or WoW Bangladesh, a women drivers’ community for those with self-driven cars and bikes. They launched formally on International Women’s Day in 2022. At present, WoW Bangladesh has 800 members with more joining every day.
“If there was any established international organisation for women drivers, we would have asked them to collaborate with us and perhaps open a Bangladesh branch,” said Farhana, but they have not found any as of yet.
In the beginning, the Women on Wheel page would post inspirational videos of women drivers. Then the members began to meet over coffee during the day, so that they could get to know each other better. Gradually, Women on Wheel began to hold workshops on technical things on driving for the members.
Most members are working women between the ages of 25 and 40, although younger students are also getting more interested in driving, according to Farhana.
There are mothers too who drive their children to school and do not want to leave them, especially girl children, alone with a chauffeur. “We would also love for female bikers to join our platform, we are called ‘women on wheel’ after all,” she said.
From December 2022, Women on Wheel began to provide driving training facilities. In fact, Farhana holds a trainer’s licence and provides private driving classes to the members in exchange for remuneration, along with a pick-up and drop-off charge.
“Most of the queries on our page were on how to learn to drive. The support that men tend to get from friends, fathers etc to learn driving; women generally do not from their mothers or friends,” she said.
She opined that most driving schools in Dhaka usually do not have a high standard, let alone be women-friendly. Moreover, women naturally feel more comfortable if they learn from another woman. She suggests dedicating at least 10 hours in total to get a grip on driving.
“It is a bit difficult to scale it up [driving lessons] because I have a full-time job and not everyone lives around, some members live far away,” she added. Even then, Farhana enjoys teaching students because she believes she also gets to learn many things in the process.
Women on Wheel also provides members with information on vehicle parts – where to buy them, price etc, women-friendly garages, how to prepare for the driving test at BRTA and so on. They are currently working with Brac Tara to facilitate auto loans for its members.
Sabrina Sharmeen works as a Business Development Manager at a German company. She has been a member of Women on Wheel from the beginning. Sabrina drove a scooty starting in 2008 and began driving a car in 2018.
She believes knowing how to drive is a life-saving skill. “I realised it even more during the pandemic when we had to drive at 3am for an emergency.”
“What I like most about the community [Women on Wheel] is that it holds workshops where we can physically go and learn about vehicles etc. It has made things simpler and easier for us, whereas before we always had to rely on a male family member or a chauffeur to help us out with these things,” she said.
Farhana further added, “The kind of support we get for belonging to Women on Wheel means a lot to us. For example, the traffic sergeant in Gulshan has asked us to contact him if we face any trouble on the road.”
Director of Seven Seas Shipping Lines, Faria Akbar Riya, is leading the Chattogram section of Women on Wheel as a regional committee member. Currently, there are more than 20 members. Faria has been driving her car since 2016 when she had to go to university, which was quite far from her home.
“In Chattogram, it is more difficult [for women drivers] than in Dhaka because here, people are not at all used to seeing them. Even if someone posts a video of a woman driving a car, negative comments just start pouring in,” she said.
However, “we get many requests from women who want to learn driving and we try to help them out as much as possible. We would really like to establish a driving school for women in Chattogram,” stated Faria.
Like most women drivers in the city, Farhana too has a mixed experience from driving on the roads of Dhaka. “I get many different reactions, the most obvious one is aggressive behaviour from bus drivers etc for simply being a female driver. They just randomly try to bump into my car etc. I get so much advice on driving simply for being a woman.”
The other reaction is apparent concern from other private car chauffeurs. “Especially when I have to park my car, at least three to four drivers say, ‘Apu, let us help.”
Kazi Farhana’s tip for women who want to start driving is “just start driving, it is easier than you think.” But she also suggests putting enough effort into the learning process because then “the returns would be quite high”.
“We would love for women to take up driving as a profession. Women are doing so many jobs without giving into social taboos, so why not drive? Once there is equity on the roads between male and female drivers, the roads will automatically become safer for everyone.”