In recent years, there is growing emphasis in feminist writing on looking at the relation between patriarchal control and women’s relationship with space. How women experience and negotiate physical spaces in everyday life has been shown to have a critical link with gender relations. Public spaces in India, specifically after incidents like the ‘Delhi Gang Rape’ of 2012, have been seen as inevitable sites of violence against women, which has reinforced the understanding that women are ‘safe’ only within the confines of domesticity under male protection. Lady Driver: Stories of Women Behind the Wheel makes an interesting intervention in contemporary discussions on women and space, particularly spatial mobility, through the cases of women who drive vehicles, such as auto-rickshaws and cars, to make a living in Indian cities. The book presents the experiences of twelve working class women who were trained by an NGO, Azad Foundation, to become commercial drivers. Sakha, another organization in collaboration with Azad, took care of the placement of these trained drivers. In the introduction to the book, Shrivastava very eloquently sets the context for these stories as the patriarchal control that restricts women’s mobility outside home and that, as a result, stereotypes driving as a male activity. She astutely points out that the stories of the women drivers are worth telling because driving as an occupation in general has been out of women’s reach, and by focusing on women who choose driving as an occupation, the book offers rich insights into the lives of working class women drivers.
The twelve personal accounts tell the overarching story of what it is like to be the first set of women in not only a male-dominated but also a hyper-masculine occupation. The stories of joining driving—an unconventional occupation for women—offer insights into quite varied social circumstances. Savitri materialized her long-suppressed desire to be mobile and go wherever she wanted by becoming a driver with encouragement from a supportive husband, who himself was scared of roads. In contrast, others like Hemlata and Sakhi find eventual refuge in the occupation from their personal and financial hardships and it becomes a source of gaining self-confidence. Each of these stories meticulously captures the life histories of these women drivers, how they arrived at the current juncture, and where they would like to eventually be in life. In some cases, being a driver is fulfilling enough but in others it is merely a step on the ladder of upward social and occupational mobility. For instance, Poonam was trained to be a driver along with her mother, Savitri, and now drives a private car for a family. In her own words, ‘If…after completing B.Com I get a different job, say in an office, then there can be more promotions too’ (p. 31). It is the careful attention to these women drivers’ aspirations and their tireless efforts to actualize the same that powerfully captures the idea that these women drivers’ lives are open to possibilities.
A major drawback of the book is that while reading the experiences of the ‘lady drivers’, it becomes difficult to comprehend whose voice we are hearing. It is fair to assume that the women drivers must have spoken to the writers of their respective stories in Hindustani or some vernacular language, but since all the stories have been written entirely in English and nearly no quotes in the original language have been provided, it is difficult to grasp how these women drivers actually expressed these life-changing experiences. Furthermore, if examined from a critical feminist lens, it is imperative to ask what the writers’ relation with their respective subjects was. Some information on how the stories were collected would have been helpful. Were they collected in the form of interviews? Or, are they based on several formal and informal conversations with the women? In the absence of some of the aforementioned details, it is difficult to ascertain if the stories are presented as they were told or have been edited to produce a coherent narrative.
Another major issue is how the book sees ‘patriarchy’ and its impact on women, and how it can be challenged. Male control over women’s movement outside the home is seen as resulting in women’s confinement to poorly paid occupations at best and to household chores with no access to gainful employment at worst. As a result, women stepping outside the boundaries of domesticity and participating in a male-dominated, and therefore relatively well-paid, occupation are seen as pushing against patriarchal norms. It becomes clear by looking at the emphasis on class in the book that caste has been ignored as an element of patriarchal oppression, which leads the authors to read into the experiences of women stepping outside home as a form of ‘empowerment’. If ‘honour’ has been the key rationale behind restricting women’s spatial mobility outside home, then we must remember that in a caste-society like India, it has been unequally distributed and ‘upper-caste’ groups have historically controlled their women to protect their ‘honour’. Dalits, for instance, never had the privilege to confine women to domestic space. By overlooking how caste might be playing a role in shaping the notions of acceptance or dishonor in individual women’s experiences, the book misses out on some key nuances. Finally, a critical appraisal of how the book deals with patriarchy and women’s empowerment is essential here because if we merely start celebrating women’s entry into male-dominated occupations, then we are falling for the agenda of neo-liberalism, in which, what Nandini Gooptu calls ‘enterprising’ individuals are responsible for their own development. In a world where the working class is struggling to survive and compelled to take up some of the most precarious jobs, the question that this book and similar future endeavours need to actively pose is the limits of such ‘empowerment’—in addition to its prospects.
The book is very accessible and has been written in a jargon-free manner. It should interest students of sociology, gender/women studies, development studies, social work, and geography. It is a collection of some really inspiring life journeys, which powerfully show how some of the most marginalized women are doing their own bit to challenge patriarchy.
Sonal Sharma is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University (USA).