Female Afghan Cabbie Meters out Election Advice

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan:  When Afghan taxi driver Sara Bahai has male passengers in her cab, she takes the chance to lobby them on female rights -- and she hopes the country's next president will also listen to her arguments.

Bahai has been driving the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif city for 10 years, during which Afghanistan has experienced huge changes, including limited improvements in the lives of many women after the harsh years of Taliban rule.

Now, ahead of the Saturday's run-off election, she says the new president must push ahead with reforms in the face of opposition from Islamists who seek to reverse gains as the US-led intervention winds down this year.

"Sometimes I argue with male passengers all the journey to convince them a woman driving a taxi isn't a bad or un-Islamic thing," Bahai, who is thought to have been Afghanistan's first-ever female taxi driver, told AFP.

"I have many expectations for the next government. They must pay serious attention to women.

"Women should be given bigger roles, they should be given seats as ministers. And female teachers should be paid more to help female education.

"I see a lot of changes for Afghan women in the past few years. Many are setting up businesses to do whatever they want. Much work has been done, but it is not enough -- women are aware of their rights."

Under the Taliban, who imposed a strict version of Islamic law, all Afghan women were barred from work and education, and the all-encompassing burqa was compulsory on rare trips outside the home.

The improvement in women's rights has been hailed as one of the major successes of the US-led effort in Afghanistan, but most women still live strictly confined lives and very few build an independent career such as taxi-driving.

- 'Working has emboldened me' -

"I am not afraid of anyone now," said Bahai, 40, who is unmarried and took up her job to provide for her two adopted sons and her sister's seven children.

"When I first got the licence after the fall of the Taliban, everybody laughed at me. But working has emboldened me and I want to show that women are not just meant to marry and have children.

"Many women, when they see their taxi driver is female, remove their veils or burqas and talk, they trust me more," she said, adding she earns about $9 a day plying the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan.

"Some people would say I am setting a bad example, and I have suffered insults. But it is my passion, and I was determined not to give in to the pressure."

The two presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both stressed that they would work to boost women's dire status in society, but entrenched patriarchal views remain strong nationwide.

Activists say the flagship 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law has been rarely implemented, and horrific recent abuse cases have included women executed for alleged affairs, as well as stonings and mutilation.

The United Nations, Human Watch Rights and local campaigners fear that women's rights could already be deteriorating as the NATO military withdraws and attention on Afghanistan's development fades.

"A female taxi driver is one example of the success we had in the last 14 years, but there have been only limited improvements on the ground," Hasina Safi, director of the Afghan Women's Network, told AFP.

"I hope to see more female drivers. This shows the evolution of Afghan women. The election will bring positive changes for women's rights -- if the government stands by its international commitments."

Earlier this year, a global campaign nudged President Hamid Karzai into ordering amendments to a proposed law that would have banned family members from testifying against male relatives in abuse cases.

In other areas, women's seat quotas on provincial councils were cut, and a draft law suggesting the reinstatement of stoning for adultery was rejected only after the proposal became public.

For one of Bahai's satisfied customers, hailing a female taxi driver offers hope for the future despite the many challenges that Afghan women face.

"When a women drives, it shows progress," said Lida, a 22-year-old university student. "It shows the women can stand on their own feet, without anyone else's help."

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