Public Streets

Risky Choices: Women and Cabs in Hyderabad, India

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl


The arrival of app-based ride-hailing in Indian cities has made a significant difference in the way the middle class, especially young men and women, commute for work and pleasure. Marked by the urgent promise of comfortable, convenient, and (relatively) affordable mobility—and the seductive promise of job-generation for small entrepreneur-drivers (Uber calls them “partners”)—app-based ride-hailing companies like Uber and Ola have become a visible feature of urban life in India. For a lot of young upwardly mobile women in urban India, the proliferation of a semi-private mode of transportation has also meant more convenient and immediate access to the pleasures of the city, especially at night, when modes of public transportation are virtually non-existent.

Since 2016, I have conducted dissertation fieldwork on driving practices in the southern Indian metropolis of Hyderabad. In my research, I encountered several women in the age range of 18 to 40 who claim that the arrival of ride-hailing made it possible for them to go out more often, more spontaneously, and without depending on “anyone” (by which, most often, they meant their brother or father or husband). Uber and Ola “cabs” have made life “easy,” I was told very often.

The desire to “go out and be out,” of course, results not only from transit technology, but also from the growth of urban consumer spaces, which foster and enable new modes of recreation and leisure in the city. But the availability of convenient and comfortable transport—the kind provided by app-based cabs—is key to experiencing the city’s enjoyments.

In Hyderabad, the very condition of convenient, comfortable, and cheapish mobility (that is, a pool of laboring bodies: drivers) becomes the very source of perceived risk and vulnerability

Take the case of Pallavi, a 33-year-old software engineer living in a shared condo in Gachibowli: the part of Hyderabad that is home to multinational tech companies, business parks, high-rise apartments, and a general atmosphere of aspiration. To Pallavi, going out, especially on weekends, to Jubilee Hills—the “posh” area of the city, which is home to the “coolest” bars, microbreweries, restaurants, coffee-shops, boutiques—is not a need but a necessity. However, Pallavi hates to drive, and does not think she will ever drive. “Just look at all this mad traffic! Why would anyone volunteer to drive if they can afford to take an Uber everywhere? It’s just stupid, I feel… Hyderabad is finally becoming like Bangalore—we have all the cool hangout spots and all the traffic woes!,” she exclaims, as we sit in an Uber, which is moving at a snail’s pace, at 7pm on a rainy evening in August 2018. “The only issue,” she hastily adds, “is that it is sometimes risky.

Depending on Uber is often framed in a rhetoric of—sometimes guilty—inevitability. But, amongst women in India, it is also ensconced in the language of a sober reckoning with the lurking “shadow of sexual assault” episodic reminders of sexual assault in cabs serving to remind them that it is, indeed, a man’s world. Pallavi, for instance, was shook for days in June 2018, after she saw in the news that a young woman in Bengaluru was molested by her Ola driver and then forced to strip for photographs. She shudders as she recalls the story to me. In a slightly lower voice, she adds, “You should also be careful while you travel here… these driver-type people are generally untrustworthy. Who knows what kind of backgrounds they have?”

An Ola cab waits for a passenger in the rain outside Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, July 2018. Photograph by the author.

Like Pallavi, several middle- and upper-class women voiced a genuine anxiety about their vulnerability in cabs. Roohi, in her late 20s, voices an anxiety similar to Pallavi’s and frames her fear of the cabdriver through the idea of the “social savage.” Pointing to how interaction is a slippery slope, where miscommunication is inevitable, Roohi opines that:

The men who drive taxis… Uber or Ola or whichever… they’re just uneducated, backward type… It’s not their fault or anything, they have come from nearby villages for these jobs. So, like, I get it, their life is hard and all that. But you know, if you or I talk to them and are just trying to be friendly, they misunderstand the signal… I don’t even know if I blame then, they just don’t know how to behave with city women—who knows if they have even talked to one? I personally just avoid all this potential miscommunication by having my “resting bitch face” look on, you know!? They have the wheel, they kinda know where we live. Who knows who is capable of what?

Like Roohi, several women worried about things like the cabdriver knowing where they lived or where they worked. They often framed these worries in the broader context of recurring rapes in the country, as well as a general feeling of class anxiety that became a function of lack of education, illiteracy, or a “vulgar mentality.” Women were vocal about how they had to be alert and vigilant while taking cabs, unlike their male counterparts, who (as one informant put it) “can happily pass out in the back of a cab after a long day’s work.”

In lieu of a societal and structural solution that can magically fix what one newspaper has called “India’s rape crisis,” Hyderabadi women often resort to certain “taxi tactics” (as one of my informants put it) to feel safer in cabs. In these situations, the onus was often on the woman to “manage” the situation. Their preoccupation with safety always rested on a latent worry of assault: which, in lieu of concrete information, was always perceived as a function of classed attributes, manifested most concretely in the framing of education, or being from a “village.”

Navigating the streets of Hyderabad in these semi-private spaces is as much about navigating a terrain where the socially distant has become spatially near. It is about confronting the fact that the very condition of convenient, comfortable, and cheapish mobility (that is, a pool of laboring bodies: drivers) becomes the very source of perceived risk and vulnerability.

The full extent of the perceived risk of sexual assault was felt by most women at night. The night was characterized as pleasurable—especially with the rise of new consumptive spaces such as clubs and bars—and the women I spoke to were often very vocal about claiming their right to the night. But the night also, more immediately, meant a heightened sense of being vulnerable to sexual assault and, thus, dangerous and unsafe.

What is also prevalent at night is the police clamping down on drunk driving, under the banner of a different narrative of safety: “road safety.” The Hyderabad Traffic Police, indeed, has been in the national and local news for enforcing drunk-driving laws very strictly, in order to make roads safer at night. In 2017, more than 20,000 people had been charged with drunk driving. And, in 2018, 1700 people had been arrested for drunk driving in a span of 4 months. However, what was widely lauded as an effective display of state power—in tackling a major issue of public safety, drinking and driving—had particular ramifications in the case of upwardly mobile women. As Tejaswini, a 27-year-old marketing manager, explained:

Earlier, you know, I would just drive after a couple of drinks. Or one of my friends would drive—who would’ve also had something to drink. But, of late, the police have gotten very strict with the checking, fines, court, what not. A bunch of my friends have already been caught. It’s a lot of hell. So, I have stopped taking risk. We just call an Uber, which always takes some half an hour to come anyway. Then we get in and just pray that he won’t rape us. (laughs) You think I am joking, but you know, that’s how it is. You either face the risk of police or the risk of some loose fellow checking you out in his rearview mirror.

What might seem like a strange juxtaposition—the risks of being caught drunk driving and the risks of taking a cab—appeared, in fact, even in a newspaper article about the rising number of women being caught for drunk-driving. According to this article, as in the case of some of the young women who I talked to, women often feel a sense of conflict in deciding which option is worse for them in terms of personal safety. Some of the women claimed that they trusted their own instinct at the steering wheel even when drunk, rather than being in a cab alone, late at night, with a “random” driver.

Hyderabad Traffic Police check for drunk drivers in Jubilee Hills, August 2018. Photograph by the author.

In fact, while doing ethnographic observation at a drunk-driving check conducted by the traffic police in an upscale area, I came across a drunk woman driver, who, upon being caught by the police, was rather angry at being arrested. She asserted that she would rather drive drunk than take a cab drunk when she is by herself. As Aarti, in her mid-20s, put it:

I know that drink driving is risky—and, like, I don’t—but honestly, I feel pretty sympathetic to women who may feel safer driving home after a few drinks than being drunk and sitting in the car with some rapey cabbie. I know it’s against the law to drink and drive, but raping women is also against the law and somehow that isn’t really changing, so like, what do you do as a woman in India? Both are issues of public safety, I think, it’s just that when it’s about women, people care less.

In this situation, one could claim that either these women are being “completely irrational”—by ignoring the real dangers of drinking and driving—or that they are being “very rational”—by wanting to save money and not take a cab. But such a reading would completely miss the point that the sheer juxtaposition of two rather “risky” options reveals to us: women perceive their situation as one that is “stuck” between two unviable options.

One could also claim that this is just an excuse. And, perhaps, it is. But it is not the verifiable validity of the excuse, as much as its rhetoric, which has implications for thinking about risk and safety. Safety, in this case, was differently interpreted by the police, who were focused on reducing accidents due to drunk driving, and the women, who were pointing out the risks of being drunk: and, thus vulnerable to sexual assault by the taxi-driver.

Some of the women claimed that they trusted their own instinct at the steering wheel—even when drunk—rather than being in a cab alone, late at night, with a “random” driver

Cabdrivers, on the other hand, make a living out of increased police checks on drinking and driving. Stricter police action against drunk driving increased their possibilities of getting rides at night. Several drivers told me that they preferred to drive at night, since lots of drunk—even young women, they would emphasize—would use their services to avoid risking getting caught. The most general comment I heard about women drinking was couched in a sense of paternalistic concern about the safety of women: immensely ironic considering that the women I interviewed viewed these very cabdrivers as the source of danger. Opinions like “it is not safe for women to be that drunk” or “it upsets me when I see women so drunk—anyone can take advantage of them” were deployed by cabdrivers, so as to emphasize to me that they too were concerned about safety.

However, more cabdrivers were concerned about how their labor as sober drivers at night is the only way that roads be safer. Their job, after all, was to be itinerant in the city while also being gatekeepers of neoliberal pleasures. For instance, according to Ajith, an Uber driver for four years:

These police checks are actually benefitting us since now people are scared to drink and drive at night. People think police and cabdrivers hate each other. Actually, it is benefitting us. Earlier, people used to drive even after drinking—and that still happens but it is much lesser. Now, people use cabs a lot more in Hyderabad and that is the direct result of police becoming stricter. We get our income and, since we are not drunk on duty, roads are safe for everyone. Without us, it was tougher for people to get rides also. So, in a way, they depend on us for safety and we depend on them for income. For women, especially, we provide safety. How else can working women get home?

Drivers, in these cases, were using “safety” to mean freedom from the burden of road injuries, but they also articulated their own role in keeping “working women” safe. However, when it came to the topic of drunk women taking these cabs, the stakes of the risk shifted slightly. For instance, Arif, who is in his mid-30s and has been driving for Uber for three years, summarized the situation:

I did not like driving at night because a lot of youngsters used to get in the car and make it very dirty. It feels worse when it is a woman because one cannot be rough with them also. Boys is different: I can be more assertive. I can raise my voice. But women… they are so drunk, that I am scared to say anything—what if she goes and complains to the police that I am harassing her or something? One time a very drunk woman even fell unconscious in my car. What am I supposed to do then? If I had even touched her, she would have lodged some complaint. Another time, one woman wanted to smoke in my car. She was so drunk that I did not want to argue—but she burned a hole in my car seat with her cigarette! See you can still see the mark on the middle seat… I couldn’t say anything in both cases. Who will take cabdriver’s side over a posh woman’s?

For Arif, ferrying drunk people in general must have been a bother; but he brought up the example of his difficulty of being assertive or “even touching” the woman, lest she complained against him. The entitlement displayed by the drunk men and women was a function of class. But that he could not “do much” about it was a matter more specific to the context of the gendered dynamic between woman commuters and male taxi-drivers.

This experience of a feeling of annoyance at drunk women—taking up too much space in the cab, vomiting, or just being disrespectful to the cab by “misbehaving” with their partner—was rather common amongst the drivers. Moreover, many complained that the women never even apologize, or pay, for the loss caused by dirtying the cab with spilled drinks, cigarette ash, or vomit. But, most importantly, they complained about how women used their status as women to escape any responsibility or accountability, without considering how they were exploiting the labor of cabdrivers to do the dirty work of cleaning up after them.

Seldom did they bring up men doing the same activities. Whenever they did, they pointed out that if men were doing these things, they would feel more comfortable with lodging complaints or “being rough,” since people would take their side. With women, they felt like “society was on their side”—something the women themselves never seemed to feel. icon

Featured image: “Drive.” Photograph by Shanthan.

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