DHAKA — Mosammat Shahanara, 22, is a rare breed in Bangladesh: a qualified professional female driver, and she is ready to hit the road in a new career that should bring her independence and an income.
Shahanara, who comes from a poor village in the southwest of the country, is one of 21 women to be the first graduates from a training scheme designed to promote women drivers and challenge deep gender prejudices.
About 600 young women from poor backgrounds are being taught to drive at an eight-week course in Dhaka, funded by the BRAC, a Bangladeshi charity in co-operation with the government. The first course started in July.
For Shahanara, defying the taboo against women drivers has given her a shot at a better life, but it has come at a high price in a Muslim-majority country where conservative values remain strong.
"Village elders declared my family an outcast. They said that a young woman like me should not live alone away from her family and that driving is not for women," she said.
"I told my parents everything will be fine if I become financially solvent. Village elders don't give us food when we go hungry," said Shahanara, who divorced her husband after he demanded gold and a motorbike as dowry.
"I've seen that if you have money you can win over any social stigma," she told AFP, holding her driving certificate in her hand at BRAC headquarters, surrounded by classmates who nodded in agreement.
Unlike many Muslim-majority nations, millions of women do take up salaried jobs in Bangladesh, but the overwhelming majority are employed in the garment export sector making clothes on low pay.
Each driving school graduate will each earn at least 10,000 taka ($122) a month if they get a job as a government or private driver -- three times the salary of a garment worker.
Ahmed Najmul Hussain, head of the programme, believes the course could be one small step towards female drivers becoming a common sight in Bangladesh as women seek to become wage-earners.
"All 21 have received job assurances from two private firms on the day of their passing-out," he said. "I am sure the success of these women will have a huge impact in their villages."
At the BRAC School of Driving, classes include parking, lane discipline, basic vehicle maintenance and practising on a simulator.
Training starts in small cars and moves up to sports utility vehicles and minibuses, with later lessons held on Dhaka's busy and congested roads.
In the capital city, home to 15 million people, most drivers are untrained and illiterate and few abide by traffic rules, while vehicles are dilapidated and roads often in bad condition.
According to the national Accident Research Institute (ARI), the accident rate in Bangladesh is at least 50 times higher than Western Europe and North America, based on the number of fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles.
Hussain said the training programme has generated interest from many firms that now want to recruit future graduates, prompting plans for the scheme to be expanded.
"Every Bangladeshi business realises how important it is to find a good driver. It saves a lot of money and time," he said.
Only a few women work as drivers -- state figures show the country has only 265 professional women against an estimated 2.4 million males.
"We thought the best way to cut accidents will be to have more women drivers," said head of state-run Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) Ayubur Rahman Khan.
"Female drivers are less aggressive. Their involvement in fatal accidents is 50 percent less than male drivers, and road rage is comparatively less."
But finding female volunteers for the course proved tricky as some fear it could be seen as breaking strict Islamic law.
"My parents and neighbours warned me against the profession. They said it's a taboo job, not for women," said 25-year-old single mother Shirina Khatun said.
Showing off her pass certificate, she said: "I can now earn on my own and ensure a decent education for my daughter.
"I have got used to driving in Dhaka and ignoring comments from men. Most of them do not know how to drive, but I do, and I also see respect in the eyes of women on the street."
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