PESHAWAR -- For the first time, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government departments will recruit and hire women as drivers of official vehicles, a further sign that gender equality is expanding in the area amid the waning influence of extremists, activists say.
Women in KP, including the merged tribal districts, have been asked to apply for about 65 vacant driver positions, with 10% of them reserved for women only, while 5% are set aside for minorities and 2% for disabled persons, according to an advertisement placed by the Establishment Department.
Women may apply for any open driver post purely on merit, besides applying for the set-aside positions.
In the recent past, extremists thwarted women in many parts of the region from voting or from going to bazaars unaccompanied by a male relative, noted women's rights activists.
The region gained unwanted notoriety in 2012 when Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members shot and gravely injured girls' education activist Malala Yousafzai in Swat. She now lives in England.
Praise for the decision
The sight of women driving government vehicles in Swat will mark a major achievement of the government and decision makers in defeating threat-mongers, said TV reporter Zubair Khan, himself from Swat.
The move by the KP government will boost girls' confidence in society, say activists who describe it as a milestone for women's empowerment and gender equality.
The initiative reflects the changing views of society, said Dr. Riffat Sardar, chairperson of the KP Commission on Status of Women (KPCSW).
"The government's decision to hire women as drivers is a healthy sign and a manifestation of change in a society that has accepted equal status for women," she said.
"Female drivers in the government sector will prove to be a huge morale booster for young girls to excel in all fields," she added.
Shabina Ayaz, the resident director of Aurat Foundation KP, a women's-rights organisation, also praised the move by the local government.
"Any government initiative for gender equality and empowerment is laudable as the Aurat Foundation trained many working women for driver jobs a few years ago, but because of societal stubbornness and government apathy, they were never hired," she said.
"We are used to giving women the role of a nurse, doctor and teacher, but it took so long for a government move that endorses women as engineers, drivers, and policewomen or bomb disposal officers. The KP government deserves credit for the decision," Ayaz added.
Still, "the mere hiring of woman drivers is not sufficient -- the government must also ensure a conducive environment and protect these women so that they aren't harassed or bullied," she said.
"Most important is that these woman drivers should have their own assigned duties if they are hired," she added. "It should not be just filling in the blanks and hiring them and then forcing them to do other jobs. They can drive or clean the car, and changing tyres will not be a problem for them."
In general, women in KP are enjoying much freer lives now, said Khurshid Bano, chairwoman of Da Hawwa Lur, a Peshawar-based women's advocacy group.
"In Taliban days, [the militants] targeted girls' schools and kept women from voting," she recalled. "Now no election result is accepted unless at least 10% of the votes came from women.
"We're moving in the right direction," she said.
Investment in women
Farida Rashid, the president of the Islamabad Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said she was encouraged by the KP government initiative and called it a generous investment in empowering women.
As indicators for health, welfare, education and income for women in the region are among the lowest in the country, the KP programme will spur women's role in local economic development, she said.
While activists are lauding the initiatives taken by the government to increase women's role in economic activities, some suggest the pace of women's development in the region should further accelerate.
"It's good to have woman drivers in the secretariat -- it will not only boost women's confidence but would also improve the working environment for young girls," said Shaheen Qureshi, chairperson of Blue Veins, a Peshawar-based women's rights organisation.
Still, "the KP government should ensure that the buses of the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit system] has woman drivers as well, which would send a strong message for women's empowerment in KP," she added.
In KP, "women have faced the worst discrimination in every area, especially when Malakand and the former FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] were under the influence of militants who blew up hundreds of girls' schools to keep them illiterate," Qureshi said.
"Many would think [the KP initiative] is not something to be lauded, but I say it's important for mainstreaming women into society and giving them a pro-active role as bread-winners for their families," she added.
Women already have made progress as drivers in the private sector. In March 2018, the Pink Taxi Service -- which has only woman drivers and transports only female commuters -- was launched in KP.
Taxi-hailing service Careem introduced woman drivers in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi in 2016.