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Footprints: 'Bhai jan' Shamim Akhter

Footprints: 'Bhai jan' Shamim Akhter

“I AM MBBF, Matric bar bar fail,” laughs Shamim Akhter. Sitting in her small 10x12 drawing room in her lower-middle-class house in a rural suburb of Islamabad called Ali Pur Farrash, she is full of confidence.

Most of the space in this room is taken up by two steel-frame beds. A steel grille in the window and two doors constitute the facade of this tiny abode, and a small steel plate says ‘Hammad Driving Training Centre’.

Inside, two smaller rooms behind the drawing room-cum-driving training centre’s makeshift office serve as the bedrooms of Akhter, her 19-year-old daughter Natasha and 18-year-old son Hammad. A 5x7 concrete box is a kitchen and a little cemented portion of the floor beneath the stairs is the laundry.

A cupboard filled with school textbooks is the proud occupant of the drawing room, where 53-year-old Akhter is sharing her story with us.

“People here call me ‘Bhai Jan’ because I am very daring,” she says. “Those at the institution where I previously worked as a sewing teacher used to call me ‘brave’.”

Married at the age of 17 to a gardener serving in a government department, she struggled to raise her five children. Her husband, she says, was interested in other women and eventually married someone else.

To earn a good living, she undertook several tasks in her life. Being intelligent, she learned quickly wherever she started working and she kept changing trade according to her needs.

She started as an agent of an insurance company and used to sell life insurance policies for Rs800 in her own neighbourhood. Then she learned sewing and embroidery before getting a job as a sewing teacher in a vocational school run by a local charity.

When the vocational training centre closed down, she went to Islamabad Traffic Police School to learn how to drive. She first got Light Traffic Vehicle (LTV) driving licence, then a Heavy Traffic Vehicle (HTV) licence and finally passed the test for all kinds of Public Service Vehicles (PSV). Then, she established her own driving centre.

Always eager to work in the field and never shy of anything, she also applied to the newly commenced Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Service; she passed the driving test, but did not get a job because the authorities had no room for a female driver. She found it beyond her means to keep running her driving school because she was unable to own and maintain a car of her own. Then she got the idea of driving a truck and contacted a local truck station where she was hired for Rs1,000 per trip.

Meanwhile, her passion to get a formal education continued to haunt her. So she decided to take her studies up where she had left them. It was during the time she was working as a teacher in the sewing training centre that she was encouraged by her supervisor to go for at least a matriculation certificate.

“As a child, I learned the Quran and got a formal education up to fifth grade,” she says. “When I started training girls in sewing and embroidery, my manager observed my intelligence and encouraged me to resume my education. I got up to eighth grade there and now have appeared four times in the matric examinations so far. I still have five papers to clear to get my matriculation certificate; I am determined to get it, no matter what.”

As she finishes her sentence, she receives a call from the truck station.

“There’s a trip for you, please come as soon as possible,” the caller says.

“Yes, I’m coming over,” she responds, rushing to take charge of the truck.

There, on Kurri road, Islamabad, where many of the city’s elites own farmhouses and posh new housing societies are coming up fast, labourers are unloading bricks from her truck.

Akhter opens the bonnet and inspects the engine, checking the water and oil levels. Then she climbs up behind the wheel and cleans the dashboard. She starts the engine and revs it up.

“She is like our mother,” says fellow driver Shaukat Ali. “We have no hesitation working with her. If somebody is working hard to earn a livelihood, it’s great. It doesn’t matter that she is doing an unorthodox job. What’s wrong with a woman driving a truck? At least she’s working hard.”

The truck has been offloaded. Akhter guns the engine and is on her way, driving with confidence but with due caution. She hits the main road and all the helpers and the labourers climb up into the bed of the truck.

The sun sets in the west and she waves her hand towards us. She starts her journey to a brick kiln in Tarnol, the western suburb of Islamabad. She will stay there with the labourers and kiln workers while the truck is reloaded. Then she’ll drive it back in the morning. The Rs1,000 note she will get will be well-earned.

Published in Dawn, October 11th , 2015

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