Ladies With Drive

By Simon Roughneen 25 August 2014

YANGON— It’s a hot Tuesday evening just before the start of the rainy season, and Daw Ni NiShein has parked next to Junction Mawtin, a shopping mall on Anawrahta Street just a few minutes’ walk from Chinatown.

“Just to take a minute’s rest,” explained the 60-year-old mother of three, who has been cruising Yangon’s streets in search of fares since noon, explained.

Daw Ni NiShein first got behind the wheel of one of the city’s taxis a decade ago. At the time, her husband had just retired, and her children were reaching adulthood, so the full-time housewife decided to begin a new—and, for a woman in Myanmar, rare—career as a taxi driver.

According to the Yangon City Development Committee, there are over 26,000 taxis in the commercial capital, but only five of those are driven by women.

“We have around 90 drivers, but we don’t have any lady drivers,” said U Kyaw Lin, a director at Golden Swallow, a taxi firm based near Yangon’s international airport.

Asked if he would ever consider hiring a woman for the job, U Kyaw Lin was noncommittal.

“Maybe this is not popular in Myanmar,” he said, adding that it might be a problem for a woman to drive at night, when many customers are men who have been drinking.

Not Alone

Whatever the reasons for their scarcity, female drivers are a rare breed in many countries as well as Myanmar. According to the International Women’s Day website, only 1.1 percent of the taxi drivers in New York City are women, with a similar figure for Toronto. In France, by contrast, women make up a relatively high 9 percent of the taxi-driving workforce.

Safety is, of course, an important issue for many women who might consider driving a cab for a living—and for passengers, with specialized taxi firms in Western cities offering the reassurance of female-only drivers for female customers. But Ma Nyein Shin, another one of the handful of female cabbies in Yangon, said that it wasn’t a major concern for her.

“I work 9 to 5 every day,” she said, agreeing with U Kyaw Lin’s take that working after dark verges on taboo, but arguing that there was no reason a woman couldn’t drive during the day.

Ma Nyein Shin previously worked in real estate. Now just one month after working as a taxi driver, her take was that the work was fun, but sometimes trying.

If she worries about anything, she said, it was Yangon’s traffic, which is growing more frenetic by the day.

The number of vehicles on the country’s roads has shot up dramatically since economic reforms were introduced in 2011. According to figures released by the Ministry of Transport, Myanmar had a total of 400,000 registered cars and trucks last year, up from 260,000 in mid-2012.

Together with Yangon’s maniacal bus drivers, who careen through crowded streets as if seeking pedestrians to mill into, the sheer volume of traffic on Yangon’s roads can be stressful even for the most experienced driver.

But despite the heavy traffic, both women say they make a decent living. Ma Nyein Shin said she gets, on average, between 10 and 15 passengers a day—enough to keep her busy, though a lot of time is lost in Yangon’s sometimes glacial downtown traffic.

Daw Ni Ni Shein said she takes in around 30,000 kyat (US$30) a day in fares. “I only spend 3,000 kyat on gas, so it’s a good job,” she said while leaning over the steering wheel, her head almost touching the windshield as she peered left while stalled at a traffic light—the only source of illumination on the nighttime street apart from other cars.

In Demand

While many taxi companies may be reluctant to take on female drivers, there is clearly some demand for women who can handle a car. Barbara Myint Sein, the chief operations officer at Yangon’s Parkroyal Hotel, said the hotel previously employed two female drivers, both of whom have moved on. “One left because she got a better salary to work as a secretary and driver,” she said.

For her part, Daw Ni Ni Shein sees no reason to give up a job that has served her well these past 10 years. “No plan to stop. I will run, run all the time,” she said.

Unlike Ma Nyein Shin, the more experienced Daw Ni Ni Shein is unperturbed by driving Yangon’s usually quiet nighttime streets; and while both women mostly stick to the city’s busy downtown core—the area centered around Sule Pagoda, from Chinatown to Botahtaung Township—Daw Ni Ni Shein is happy to do the occasional airport run.

Until just a few years ago, when foreigners were still a fairly rare sight in Yangon, a driver was lucky to pick up a passenger who wanted to make the 40-minute run to the airport in the city’s northern outskirts. These days, however, most drivers charge 7,000 or 8,000 kyat for the trip—and some more entrepreneurial spirits will tack on an extra 1-2,000 kyat for running the air-conditioning.

“Oh, some drivers charge too expensive for foreigners!” Daw Ni Ni Shein—whose standard rate for the same route is 5,000 kyat—exclaims when she hears this.

Then—demonstrating that she’s mastered the fine art of snagging a fare as well as any of her male colleagues—she offers me her phone number.

“Next time you fly, you call me.”

This article first appeared in the August 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine. Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting.