“Hey, look — an aunty is driving a van!” This is what a young boy hollers as he calls his friends to see the unfamiliar sight in front of him. Dressed elegantly with a pink dupatta draped over her head, the lady behind the wheel of the Suzuki van turns to the children with a broad grin on her face and amusement sparkling in her eyes. This is when the boy realises how loudly he had expressed his amazement and makes a few failed attempts not to gawk at her.
He isn’t the only one to have reacted in this fashion, and people ranging from parents to bus drivers have been astounded upon seeing Mrs Kubra Amjad drive her school van. Driving since 2007, she says that she and her van have elicited this reaction many a times. “Once a group of youngsters were driving past my van, they stopped in the middle of the road, got out of their car and gave me a thumbs up, saying, ‘Way to go aunty! Keep it up!’ That was a really proud moment for me,” she says with a smile.
In a city where regular lady drivers are apprehensive about getting behind the wheel, she has the nerve to take it up as a profession. Along with the confidence that is required to drive a van on Karachi’s chaotic streets, she explains that the occupation requires adherence to strict punctuality, some dexterous manoeuvring and, of course, the ability to take responsibility for the children.
This wasn’t something she had contemplated doing when she was young, but a line of work that she chose when other avenues had closed. With a husband who had a promising career in direction, production and designing, and who would take up projects for various television channels and multinational companies, Kubra had led a comfortable life. She used to enjoy helping her husband in his projects and, at times, would drive his van and transport supplies. “I used to say, ‘Why should you pay someone else to drive the van for you, when I can easily do it’,” she recalls.
Her life was smooth sailing, even without her making any contribution to the household finances, until her husband died of a sudden heart attack. Her life changed dramatically after that. Widowed and without much money, she had to struggle to support herself.
Initially, her family came to her aid and took her in. She accepted their support till the time she came to terms with the mishap that had befallen her. When she was emotionally stable enough to take charge of things, she decided she would go back home and fend for herself. Her family tried to persuade her not to leave and live alone, offering to take care of everything. But she insisted that she had to find her own way to make ends meet. “I am very blessed to have such a wonderful family, but that was not the life I wanted for myself. I didn’t want to lose my identity and become a burden on anyone,” she explains.
Although trained as an Association Montessori Internationale teacher, she couldn’t pursue her line of work due to her chronic back problem which wouldn’t allow her to stand for too long. Instead, she thought about using her van to earn a respectable living for herself, by driving students to school.
In her favour, the parents of young children felt much more comfortable sending their little ones under the supervision of an educated lady rather than regular drivers. She started off with just one passenger, a girl from her neighbourhood, and gradually the number rose to 25.
When she shared this new business proposition with her family, they discouraged her, saying she should either accept their financial help or else take up teaching since driving a van was neither lady-like nor socially acceptable. Giggling at the memory, she relates what she told them: “For a halal income, even if I have to become a vegetable vendor, I will do it. I know there’s nothing wrong in what I am doing and being around the kids gives me immense joy.”
Despite the cynicism of those around her, she says this profession didn’t really present any serious challenge. Of course, she faced her set of difficulties, but at the same time she received a massive amount of appreciation from the parents of the children she picks and drops. Speaking of her difficulties, she mentions a certain van driver who couldn’t accept her in this line of work, and was always picking fights and trying to get her children to leave her van. But the support she got from others encouraged her to carry on.
“There have been times when a parent has said harsh words to me and it does hurt a lot, especially if I am not at fault. But that’s a part of my job,” she adds, consoling herself. Moreover, she feels extremely grateful when the traffic police, whom everyone in Karachi seems to complain about, greet her and respect her by going out of their way to help her if the need arises.
If there’s one thing Kubra is clear about, it’s that women should try to earn their own income no matter how meagre it may be. “Plan wisely, utilise your skills to mould your own identity, and be self-reliant. Whether it is a job or a business, choose one that gives you respect and happiness. You might not be encouraged by others in the beginning, but if you stay resolute, you will eventually earn acceptance,” she advises.
“A helping hand can go away as soon as it came, and then you are left worse off than before,” she says. With a steady hand on the steering wheel, it’s clear that Kubra is one lady who knows which road she wants to be on, and isn’t afraid of a few bumps in the way.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 8th, 2012.