I’ve been planning on writing about being a woman who drives for a while now, to catalogue my colourful experiences on the streets of New Delhi. Some background about me might help place the stories I’m about to tell in context. I’m a 22-year old student who has been driving for roughly 4 and a half years now. My parents were always keen on ensuring I was independent and thought driving “safer” as compared to public transport. My university is supposed to be a residential one, but when mess food is inedible, laundry is piling up and home is 30-minutes away, who wouldn’t want to run home? So I usually drive up to college for my classes and return at the end of the day.
Two years ago, I started driving a small red hatchback. I was more than happy driving my grandmother’s 9-year-old beat-up Getz, which had become a sentimental scrapbook of scratches from parking mishaps – not to say that my current vehicle is any different. All was well and good until my parents were in the car with me one day and realised it had no airbags, and believe you me, I need a vehicle with airbags. Then it was out with the old, and in with the new. With the airbags, the new vehicle also boasted of a functional stereo system, which allows me to blast music (in multiples of 5, of course).
When I first started driving, the number of stares I received confused me, and used to put me off – do people think I’m too fast? Do they think I’m too slow? Should I not be overtaking? Am I in the wrong lane? Maybe the red colour isn’t a fan favourite. It took me a while to comprehend the stares – it seems that people back in 2016 (and in 2019, for that matter) were still surprised at the prospect of a young woman driving alone, and that too, fast (always around the speed limit though, I have no desire to be pulled up and have my license confiscated)! It still makes for hilarious eye contact with people in other vehicles and I’ve recently started returning the stares with a shrug.
When I first started driving, the number of stares I received confused me, and used to put me off.
Let’s move on to music. Playing loud music in a car is a very “Delhi thing” to do, I’ve been told, which also attracts a lot of stares on the road. Allow me to introduce the imagery here – imagine a vehicle blasting eclectic music hurtling down the highway. You happen to pass by the said vehicle and glance inside it, expecting to see a boy and you see… a young woman? I’ve lost count of the number of surprised stares I’ve received on this account.
I’ve been told that my “driving style” is “masculine”, that I need to be more “careful and cautious” – which would have been sound advice had it stemmed from a concern for my well-being, but as it turns out, it emerges from disdain at my behaviour not being in conformity with gender expectations. It seems that driving is a primarily male activity anyway and that I drive “like a boy” surprises and irks people to no end. Ironic, isn’t it? That when that one slow driver holds up the lane, people exclaim, “Arrey lady driver hogi!”, but the same people aren’t content when the “lady driver” drives fast? Interesting.
Stares and surprised glances are usually harmless and mostly hilarious. However, being followed and chased is decidedly not. There have been several instances which have made me take stock of the ‘weapons’ in my car, but a screwdriver in the glove compartment, a pepper spray in the bag and a toolkit in the boot are hardly helpful when you’re in a Need for Speed -reminiscent car chase on NH-8 at 9 pm, for no fault of your own. Sorry Mom and Dad, but it seems that your assumption that driving is safer than public transport is not as true as you would think.
Stares and surprised glances are usually harmless and mostly hilarious. However, being followed and chased is decidedly not.
Because one time I was followed for several kilometres in a strange part of the city by two men on a bike for overtaking them. Because the same night, when I refused to move out of my lane despite incessant honking, a Swift with dark windows pulled up to my left and another white, male-driver Swift slowed down in front, blocking any chance at changing lanes till I had to slow down and veer into a side lane to escape. Because a man in a white Polo seemed to have made it his life’s mission to follow my car till I pulled up to college and he had to scram – makes me wonder what would have happened had my destination been different. Because I have to put window shades even at night so people don’t recognise me to be a woman. Because my male friends have to follow me home in their own vehicles if we’re out at night.
So will I stop driving? No. Will I turn the volume down? No way. Will I stop changing lanes/change lanes in the face of incessant honking? No sir. But believe it or not, the struggles of being a woman driver stretch way beyond driving in heels and not being able to put the window down because it messes your hair up.
Featured image used for representative purpose only. Image source: iStock