By Manal Ismail
The National : ABU DHABI // After nearly six years working as a maid, Seble Gezahheng decided last year to hang up her gloves and throw in the tea towel for a silver Nissan Tiida.
Ms Gezahheng, from Ethiopia, is one of only a handful of women in the capital to drive a regular silver taxi cab. And she does so by choice.
In deciding to leave corporate cleaning in order to drive taxis, she set herself only one condition. She had to drive a regular silver cab and not one of the fleet of ladies-only vehicles. The fact that Ms Gezahheng could earn significantly more as a pink taxi driver did not sway her.
“The best part of this job is meeting people,” she said. “And I wanted to meet all kinds of people and not only women. If I’m driving the taxi that’s only for ladies, that won’t be possible.”
For four months, Ms Gezahheng tried, and failed, to get a job with one of the six taxi companies in Abu Dhabi. Eventually, she got a break.
“They all kept telling me that this isn’t allowed and that only spots for the lady taxis are available,” she said. “One day, Emirates Taxi called me back and told me that it’s fine – I can work as a driver for the regular cars. I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it.”
When passengers, particularly men, open the taxi door to find a friendly woman dressed in a lavender shirt in a well-kept car, they are often caught off guard.
Many have to look twice to make sure they are not accidentally getting into a ladies-only taxi, Ms Gezahheng said.
“When they see me they start saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ and then they shut the door,” she said.
“I don’t even have the opportunity to explain myself. It’s actually quite funny.”
As Ms Gezahheng drives around the roads of Abu Dhabi, fellow drivers who glimpse a female face inside the silver car are taken aback. For the most part it’s a pleasant surprise, but many react differently.
“Sometimes, other drivers take down my plate number and call to complain – why am I, a woman, driving a regular taxi? This shouldn’t be happening,” she said.
“Even with my male colleagues, they often come up to me and tell me that I am a woman and I should be driving a ladies taxi.”
On a normal day, Ms Gezahheng works 12-hour shifts and picks up between 25 and 35 passengers, mostly men. The fact that Ms Gezahheng must allow male strangers into her car, sometimes into the late hours of the night and for long trips, does not scare her. It’s a question her male passengers often ask, she said.
“I just tell them I have a gun,” she jokes. “My passengers have always been very pleasant. There’s no reason for me to be afraid.”
Yet many women choose to drive ladies-only taxis for this reason. “I don’t want to be driving men in weird hours of the night,” one Filipina pink taxi driver said. “Also, these cars are much cleaner. But this doesn’t make our life easier. We are often sent to the airport or to the outskirts of the city where we can rarely pick up customers.”
Syed Abdul Hakeem, the general manager of Emirates Taxi, said he had only three or four women driving regular silver taxis, out of a fleet of 1,245 in the emirate.
“All of them are very happy and they never have any issues with the customers,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a problem hiring more.”
Ten of the Emirates Taxi fleet are dedicated ladies-only taxis. Mr Abdul Hakeem said that TransAd, the regulator, requires each of the franchises to designate 10 cars as pink ladies’ taxis.
“These taxis are exclusive for ladies and children,” he said. “And they are not permitted to pick up male customers.
“This often makes it difficult for the drivers to meet their requirements and that’s why we’ve tried to structure an attractive commission scheme for them.
“We’ve also requested TransAd to allow entire families into the vehicle rather than restrict it to women and children.”
Meanwhile, Ms Gezahheng said that unlike taxi drivers who have complained of mistreatment at the hands of their employers, she has had no problems.
“Many of these drivers misbehave and then complain that they are not being treated well,” she said.
“For example, many refuse to pick up customers although the drivers are not occupied. I’ve never experienced any problems with my company.
“My theory is, if you’re a good driver then everything will be fine.”
And Ms Gezahheng has ambitions beyond the realms of her silver car.
“In about six months my company will draft me a letter for approval,” she said. “And hopefully, I’ll be the only female public bus driver in the capital.”