‘I Stare Him Down’: Venus Driving School’s Ghazala Bangash

If you live in Islamabad, you know Ghazala Bangash. You may not know her by her real name, but you have likely have taken classes at her decades-old Venus Driving School for women. And if you haven’t, then someone in your immediate social circle inevitably will have. We sat down with Ghazala, an institution unto herself, for a very interesting conversation on men, dealing with harassment on the road,  the Islamabad Traffic Police, and much more. 

Before interviewing Ghazala Bangash, we had speculated enthusiastically about the driving school’s unusual name, speculating it had its origins in Roman mythology. Ghazala quickly put an end to our assumptions when she told us that the school was named eponymously: ‘My mother’s friend named me Venus as a young girl. When I started my own business I wasn’t sure what I was should call it. My friends weren’t sure, either. Then I thought of my nickname; that this name isn’t that common, so I should go with Venus.’

Still, she agrees that the name has some symbolic value. ‘It’s providential, in a way. For one, my name is Venus, plus the driving school is an effort to help women…No one ever takes the woman’s side.’

Ghazala started teaching driving in 1976, when after some encouragement from her friend and aunt, she answered a call in the newspaper for a driving instructor. With a monthly salary of 500 rupees, she would commute from I-8 to work in F-6 in her mother’s Foxy.  ‘I love driving; it’s almost a craze,’ she explains her career choice. ‘I never tire of driving.’

It makes sense, then, that she would start her own business five years later. ‘Working on my own was much better. There were none of the restrictions that the driving schools had and I used to come as I chose. Plus I also like the financial independence. Your own business is always better.’ By then she had also saved up some money to buy her own car, a 1981 Datsun.

To date, Ghazala says she’s taught almost 5000 women how to drive, including a woman sitting by us at the café where we’re talking. The former student, a banker, comes over to say hello, and tells us she was an amazing teacher. Ghazala herself smiles when we observe that she’s quite famous in Islamabad. ‘Very much, masha’Allah. I can think of three households where I’ve taught the grandmother, mother, and daughters. That’s what they’ve told me.’

Ghazala’s self-proclaimed craze of driving is evident from how she talks about what she does. She says that while the driving school is her source of income, she sees her work more as a service than a business. Primarily, she says, it is an effort to help women. The decision to limit the school to women was a conscious, impassioned one. ‘From the very beginning, I never liked men. I’m against them. I decided that it’s better to help women, otherwise they stay stuck at home the whole day. By stuck I mean oppressed. Even in driving there are some girls that learn secretly. This is again because of men; if she has a father, she will hide the fact that she’s learning from him, and if she has a brother she’ll hide it from him, and if she has a husband she’ll hide it from him. “My father is not home right now, please come and teach me”, “He (father) is at home right now, please park the car far away.”’ The humorous manner in which she recalls these demands made by her students belie the grim reality of the consequences some women in Pakistan face if they are ‘caught’ doing something as ostensibly harmless as learning how to drive.

And the problems continue on the road, too. She recounts several incidents of being harassed by male drivers with or without her students, and, surprisingly, even the police. Just the day before, she says, she got into something of an altercation with a man harassing her on the road during a lesson. She called the Islamabad Traffic Police who, instead of questioning the man, focused their questioning on Ghazala. ‘They asked me why I was teaching in that area, on that road. Even though they have their own driving school, and they teach on the road! So I told them that I teach the student after I pick her up from her house, and they told me to teach on a ground.’ Needless to say, the man went unpunished.

Disheartening, maybe, but surprising? Not for Ghazala. ‘I’m telling you the simple truth, that a man has never supported a woman.  During the time that I’ve been driving I’ve had a lot of accidents, met a lot of bad people, have been on the receiving end of a lot of abusive comments, but whenever there has been an incident, people have always sided with the man saying, “it’s okay, these things happen.” It’s simple. Nobody takes my side.’

That’s not to say she’ll let anyone get away with harassment. ‘The plain truth is that I fight a lot,’ she says, describing a time when she beat a man with a bent for stalking her on the road. ‘After that he didn’t try coming after me again. This happened twice with men on motorcycles. Unless you say something to them, they will not back down. They will keep following you. The safety of the girl (student) is my responsibility… why should I lead the man to her house? They keep following unless I threaten them.’

Other protective weapons include a knuckle duster and taser. ‘I have it in my pocket right now. I took it out yesterday, too, in case the man got too fresh. I’ve actually used this on men, but they usually run away just hearing the sound of it. Let me tell you, they run off very quickly. I also advise my students to carry one with them—and they do.’

‘We should be strong, women should be strong,’ she continues. ‘Whether they have problems in their offices or on the road, they should be strong…When I stayed quiet, that was when men bothered me. But when I hit them, they went away. So women should not stay silent, they should stay strong. Speak out; no one will say anything to you…they think that men will hit or abuse them, and I want to tell them that they can hurt them, too. I give them taser guns to use. The only thing is to not be afraid.  Women become afraid; they get scared in offices when their bosses take advantage and try to hide things. We should simply not be afraid.’

Ghazala’s kindly appearance, gray hair, and wrinkled face mask an indomitable spirit that is revealed fully when she speaks about the unfair treatment meted out to women in society and on the roads. Her own strength is obvious as she emphasizes the need for women to give up dependency and be strong and fearless in response to gender discrimination. ‘I can tell from a man’s face what his intentions are,’ she says from behind her clip-on sunglasses. ‘And I don’t shy away or stay quiet. I stare him down.’ 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Ghazala’s last name. It is Bangash, not Javed.

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