“In the past my father defined my identity. After marriage it was my husband... Now my identity is of a driver... I am Shanno Driver.”
Dressed in a shirt and blue denims, Shanno Begum appeared on the TV talk show Satyamev Jayate in 2012 to share her experiences of domestic violence. Her husband Israr Ali, a driver, used to hit her daily, she said. Until one day he cracked her head open with a brick and she slapped him back.
Ali died of kidney failure in 2005, leaving Shanno Begum with a one-room house in Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar and three children. At first she made ends meet by working as a street vendor, cook and maid. But then, her children convinced her to learn driving, a wish Ali too had once expressed.
She received driving lessons from Azad Foundation, a non-profit that “equips resource-poor women with skills”, in 2008 and soon after began driving a taxi for Sakha Cabs. Six years later, she signed up for Uber.
Shanno Begum says she was the first female Uber driver in Delhi, though other women have joined the ride-hailing app over the years. She bought a vehicle under Uber’s Vehicle Financing Programme, and ever since her daily routine has been roughly the same.
The 40-year-old drives the cab from 6 am to 1 pm, returns home for lunch, buys the day’s grocery, gets some rest, and then gets back to work from 5 pm till 10 pm.
“I feel as if I have travelled a long journey and now I am at the right destination,” Shanno Begum said. “I am happy and satisfied after all the struggle.” Her children are in school and she has been able to buy gold jewellery for her daughters.
How do passengers react to her? Mostly with a smile, she says, but there are some surprised ones who ask “Aunty, are there other women cab drivers?” or “How long have you been driving?” She recounts an episode from a time when she was new in the profession. A scared customer kept telling her to drive carefully. Shanno Begum asked her to either trust her or step out of the car. The customer chose to get down.
She believes more women should become drivers for ride-sharing apps. “You only need to know self-defence. After that driving is safe and convenient.”