Breaking taboos in a male-dominated society, Zahida Kazmi is Pakistan’s first female taxi driver.
A widowed mother of six children she has faced many challenges, including the Taliban.
Recently forced to sell her cab to pay for her medical bills, a Facebook campaign has been launched to get Zahida back behind the wheel.
Naeem Sahoutara traveled to the capital Islamabad to find out more.
“I have lived my life with bravery, like a lion. If my life is going end like a fox, I would rather die before it happens,” says 55-year-old Zahida Kazmi, Pakistan’s first female taxi driver.
Zahida first learned to drive a car in the 1980s, but never thought that one day it would become her profession.
But after her husband died and criminals took over her home, Zahida fled to Rawalpindi in the suburbs of the capital, Islamabad.
It was a tough time, she says.
“I had nothing to eat when we came here,” she explains, “I faced very difficult times. I started a job at a driving school, but the owner defrauded me and gave me no money.”
A Pakistani family living in England offered to shelter Zahida and her six children, but Zahia still needed to find a way to earn money.
At the time, Pakistan’s then prime minister had launched the first-ever government sponsored poverty alleviation scheme, offering taxis on loan.
Zahida was the first citizen to receive the cab loan and in 1992 became the first female taxi driver in the country.
But in Pakistan’s male-dominated society, it wasn’t easy.
“The first morning I went to the airport to get passengers in their Burqa, but everyone was angry,” she recalls, “They remarked that a woman had come to compete with them. For two days I would go to the airport in morning and return empty handed. The male drivers would not allow me to pick up the passengers.”
On the third day they finally relented, after one driver stood up for her.
Zahida grew up in the conservative region of Abbotabad, the lush green mountains in northwest of Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
In the local Pakhtoon culture there, women are forced to wear veils and stay indoors.
Zahida says her family did not accept her decision to drive a taxi.
“My in-laws never visited me and my children after my husband’s death,” she says, “I lived with my mother and my brothers also did not like me driving the cab. But, I insisted on earning bread for my children.”
Zahida drove through protests and celebrations and carried on with her work unnoticed.
In the afternoons she would buy a cheap lunch and tea at Abpara Market – next to the famous Red Mosque, from where the army launched an offensive against students calling for sharia law.
During these years, Zahida met people from all walks of life – even the Taliban.
“Once, I went to drop a passenger to the tribal areas. Some locals, who were the Taliban, stopped me and asked why I was driving the taxi,” says Zahida, “They said I should stay indoors. But, I told them my whole story. Then an elderly man gave me some food rations and said that every time I passed through the area I should stop by.”
Against all odds, Zahida continued her work.
But eight months ago, after she suffered a brain hemorrhage, Zuhida Kazmi was forced to sell her taxi to pay for her medical bills.
Since then she hasn’t been able to work.
To get back on her feet Zahida is asking fellow Pakistanis for help to buy a new taxi.
“I am not a beggar... My only request is that someone buy me a high-roof van so that I can start picking and dropping off the school children. That’s my only request to any Pakistani or anyone abroad, if they want to help me,” she says, “Don’t give me money, just give me a taxi.”
A Facebook page called “Pakistan’s First Female Cabbie – Zahida needs your help” has been launched to collect donations.
Campaigners estimated they would need $7,200, US dollars to buy a new taxi for Zahida.
And a recent post says the target has nearly been reached, with donations coming from as far as America.
Zahida hopes that she is just days away from getting back behind the wheel.