Life is not easy for Hebron woman bus driver
Hebron, West Bank - Intisar al-Halayqah becomes distraught recalling the daunting experience in 1998 that forced her to obtain a licence to operate a motor vehicle in emergency situations.
Halayqah’s mother needed urgent medical attention but nobody was home to help. The family car was parked outside the front door but she didn’t know how to drive. So she rushed to the street, hailed a taxi and rode in it with her mother to a hospital.
Today, Halayqah, 46, drives buses and mini-trucks and plans to obtain a permit for driving trailers. Her bold moves are rare in her conservative society, which bans mixing of the sexes in public, including wedding celebrations and even extended family gatherings.
“People thought I’m crazy when they saw me driving a 55-passenger bus,” Halayqah said. “Even tourists were running after the bus to take pictures of me.
“I broke all the taboos and defied all the traditions but I had to break out of my shell and go free.”
Hebron, in the southern part of the West Bank, has a population of about 700,000. The residents are essentially of tribal descent and strictly observe conservative traditions that have died out in other West Bank cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem.
In Hebron, coed sports are prohibited. Boys are separated from girls in classrooms and lunch breaks once they reach the fifth grade. Swimming pools and gyms have different hours for male and female clientele.
Families force girls to marry the first prospective bridegroom, even if the couple is underage.
Despite the restrictions, there are a few women who made it in public life, including two women on the Hebron city council and a handful of rights activists.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, traditions are less strict. There are policewomen and female surgeons, dentists, engineers and journalists. Three women ministers serve in the Palestinian 17-member cabinet and 17 of the 132 legislators are women.
As for Palestinians who came under Israel’s administration when the Jewish state was established in their homeland in British-mandate Palestine in 1948, Arab customs are maintained but conservatism generally diminished because of influence of the Israeli community.
Ramallah got its first female marriage registration chancellor in July. Despite the city’s relatively liberal society, the chancellor reported hurdles, saying in a recent interview that she was “struggling for recognition”.
“Women in Hebron, like the rest of the Arab world, are practically second-class citizens with little rights and freedoms,” said Sahar al-Qawasmi, a women’s rights activist and president of the women’s group Roles for Societal Change.
“Women here suffer under the Israeli occupation and the hardships it imposes on the Palestinian people at large as well as from our patriarchal society, which regards women as less qualified and less important than men,” she said.
Halayqah emphasised that she “went through pains to get to where I am today”.
“Being in a man’s world is a difficult chore,” she said.
“Back in the year 2000, when I used to drive my car, people used to give me dirty looks, with some laughing at or gossiping about me,” she said, recalling when she worked giving driving lessons.
In 2003, Halayqah got a licence to drive mini-trucks and small buses, but not from her town in eastern Hebron.
“Traffic officials cheated to have me fail the test at the motor vehicle department,” she said. Alternately, she was examined in Bethlehem and got her licence.
“That’s when people in my town went mad,” she said.
“They used to stop me to ask me why I took a man’s job and what do I get out of it. What counted for me is the unequivocal support I had from my family, including my brothers, who told me to do as I please as long as the job is clean.”
Halayqah’s idol is Nadia Sayed Ahmed, 47, widely known as Um Waseem, from Dura in southern Hebron. “I like her because she’s got guts,” Halayqah said. “She’s the first woman cab driver in Hebron who didn’t care what people thought of her, bought a car and used it as a taxi to transport women only.”
For Halayqah, the challenges are not over yet. “I still am looking forward to get a licence to ride a motorcycle,” she said.