My name is Rehana and I’m one of the few, if not the only, female rickshaw drivers you'll find on the streets of Lahore.
I was born and raised in this city. My home is in the Fatehgarh neighbourhood. I have three siblings: two older sisters and a brother. I also have three children: two daughters and a son. My daughters — aged 7 and 12 — are studying. My 17-year-old son dropped out of school after class 6. I’m the sole breadwinner of the family, as my husband left us three years ago.
As a child, I wanted to be a boy. I used to play the games that boys played — marbles, kite flying. I was never interested in going to school despite my parents' insistence. I was a complete tomboy. But as I grew up my parents told me I'd have to get married one day. They eventually got me married. I tried to keep my family together, but my husband left me.
"I decided to get a rickshaw in February. Many people helped me with the money. I had some of my own saved too. The showroom people gave me the rickshaw on discounted instalments and eased the purchasing process. God bless everyone who thought so much about me."
When he left, I wondered how I would raise my three children, how I'd feed them and send them to school. I started looking for work. I couldn’t work as a domestic help because I had fractured my leg in an accident. As a child, I used to ride bicycles, so my son taught me how to ride a motorcycle so I could transport my daughters to and from school where I found a job as a maid. Due to my fractured leg, I had two extra wheels fixed to the motorbike. The teachers supported me a lot but the school only paid me Rs6,000 and wanted me to work double. So I quit.
Once out of work and after a lot of deliberations and even suicidal thoughts, I decided to get a rickshaw on instalments in February this year. A lot of people helped me with the money. I had some of my own saved too. The showroom people were really helpful and kind; I told them my husband had left me and I wanted to work for my children. They were very encouraging and gave me the rickshaw on discounted instalments and eased the purchasing process too. God bless everyone who thought so much about me.
After riding a motorcycle for so long, I didn’t find driving a rickshaw difficult. I thought the method was the same and practised driving myself. I brought it home from the showroom myself.
In the beginning, I used to pick and drop schoolchildren and had girls going for tuitions. I barely took customers from the roads; I only picked up women if I found them on the way, but I never waited for customers like rickshaw drivers usually do. I didn’t want to wait among men; they make all kinds of comments. So my main source of income was through schoolchildren and teachers.
But this could not go on for long because a lot of those children shifted schools. I became worried about paying the instalments. At the petrol station where I refuelled my rickshaw, I asked them to connect me with some schoolchildren. They didn't have any leads. I was getting desperate and even thought of committing suicide again.
But a person at the petrol station suggested that I join the Careem fleet and even made me meet his friend who was already associated with the company. They took me to the Dharampura office of Careem where they conducted a little interview, got my rickshaw details and trained me a bit. That’s how my journey with Careem started a month ago.
The training at Dharampura made no sense to me because I’m completely illiterate. I couldn’t use the mobile phone or the internet. I asked my son to join me while I take rides on the rickshaw. So now he handles the phone and maps.
"If I don’t know the directions, fellow rickshaw drivers on the way guide me. If my rickshaw stalls they help me push it to a petrol pump or a workshop. They’ve been very helpful to me."
My day starts with sending my daughters off to school after which I take out my rickshaw around noon. Initially, I had to complete six trips in eight hours, but then Careem asked me to do at least four trips in five hours. I don’t want to spend more time outside because I have to give time to my children too; there’s nobody else to take care of them.
When they come home, I feed them and send them off to Quran lessons and tuition. Once they leave for tuition, I take out the rickshaw to drop girls to their tuition. I believe if we start by making less money, we’ll eventually get more, but if we run after more, we’ll lose the little we had also. So I’m satisfied with the time I’m spending on the rickshaw.
I even got my son a motorcycle rickshaw so he doesn’t get into bad habits after quitting school. He helps me with running our house when I’m not driving.
I’ve mostly had women customers, and they've been very supportive of me for what I’m doing for my children.
Sometimes the maps are so confusing that we reach a location, but the customer doesn’t come out or even call to check where I am, so we don’t know if we’re at the right place. Some end up cancelling the rides. I have had women lawyers as customers who gave me their visiting cards and told me to call them in case of any problem. The few men I’ve had have been nice and supportive too. So far, I haven’t faced any difficulty with them.
I mostly take rides near my locality because if I go far and then a customer cancels a ride, it gets problematic for me. So I prefer staying near my house. If ever end up going far and don’t know the directions, fellow rickshaw drivers on the way guide me very well. If my rickshaw stalls on the way, or there’s a tyre issue, they help me push it to a petrol pump or a workshop. They’ve been very helpful to me.
Earlier, I used to earn enough only to provide food to my children, pay house rent and rickshaw instalment. But now I think I can save too.
When I started driving the rickshaw on my own in February, a lot of people, including my sisters, told me I could face problems on the way, passengers could harass me.
But I told them God will help me. I said that if someone would tease me, they’d get a thrashing from me. I also made it a point to dress in a way that they wouldn't dare tease me. I had to become a man myself. Even when my husband left, I had to become both father and mother for my kids. They are also supportive and say they don’t need a father, I’m enough for them.
I want my children to become good human beings. It depends on them what they want to be when they grow up. My son says he will work and wants me to sit at home, but he isn’t that mature yet.
"After riding a motorcycle for so long, I didn’t find driving a rickshaw difficult. I brought it home from the showroom myself."
I wish my daughters study as much as possible. I give them my example when they say they’re not interested in studying. I tell them, 'This is how men can treat you, you need to stand on your own feet, become independent.' As we’re a Pathan family, women in my family do pardah, they don’t go out at all, they don’t even ride bicycles. But I was the rebellious one.
After I started riding the motorcycle, I saw so many women doing the same. Women driving cars have appreciated me. A lot of women asked me to teach them how to drive a rickshaw, but I said I will only if they take it seriously and not give it up.
I’ve told a lot of women around me not to give up, and keep their spirits high. I want to tell women to earn for themselves, for their children. Have enough courage, be brave. Don’t seek anyone’s help; it’s always best to help yourself. It gives you a sense of independence.
This story was told to Sheharyar Rizwan. It has been lightly edited for clarity. All photographs courtesy Careem.