If you get into a taxi in Tunisia’s capital, you just might find yourself in a cab driven by a woman. Out of Tunis’s 16,000 cabbies, 40 of them are women.
And 60-year-old Yamina Jaouani is one of them. A divorced mother of two, she's been supporting her family by driving a cab since 1986.
“I’m actually surprised that it’s 2014, and there aren’t more women doing this,” Jaouani says.
Watching her sister become Tunisia’s first female taxi driver in 1974 inspired her to take on a job so few women in Tunisia dare to do.
“My sister went to France and saw women driving cabs there and since our president, Habib Bourguiba, supported women’s equality, my sister decided to drive one too. And when I needed to work for my family, I signed up.”
Jaouani started driving a cab around the same time that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency in a bloodless coup. In 2011, he was ousted in Tunisia’s Arab spring revolution. Since then, Jaouani says, fewer police patrol the streets in Tunis and some areas are left unmonitored. As a result, she’s had to make adjustments.
“I’ve been more concerned because I can’t work at night,” she says. “There are also places now that just aren’t considered safe, so that means fewer places that I can drive to.”
But she’s careful to emphasize that she supports the revolution, even though she misses the cleanliness and safety of pre-revolutionary Tunis. She says a democratic government is worth making some minor changes to keep herself safe. The country's new constitution explicitly recognizes women's rights, including to drive a cab.
Her 25-year-old daughter, Sabrine Ben Laabidi, says that her mother’s years of work made it possible for her to go college. After graduating and getting a job in IT, Ben Laabidi used her first paychecks to help her mother buy her own taxi.
“My mother is a great woman,” Ben Laabidi says. “To be a taxi driver, this work, it’s enormous for a woman who is Arab, and who is Muslim. She’s a courageous woman.”
Jaouani doesn’t see it that way. To her, driving a cab is just another job — one that happens to get some attention.
“Maybe people think I’m not respected because this is a traditional country, but they do,” Jaouani insists. “Men are very proud, they tell me. Women get excited too. They tell me things like, ‘We are strong!’ ”
Tunisia is a traditional country where women are vocal about their rights. In January, the National Constituent Assembly adopted an article in the new constitution calling for gender parity in the assembly (though it hasn’t happened yet), and endorses all efforts to “eradicate violence against women.”
With these developments, Jaouani asks, what’s the big deal if women are cab drivers? Still, she warns that the freedoms women have in Tunisia are not to be messed with.
“If anyone dare touches the rights that women have here, there would be a second revolution,” she says.