Aluel Atem: Driving and riding as female in South Sudan

Aluel M.B Atem is a Development Economist who has a keen interest in Gender and Conflict Transformation. She hosts Gender Talk 211 - an African-Feminist platform where South Sudanese explore and share resources, knowledge, experiences and skills that facilitate conversations on Gender. She co-founded Crown the Woman-South Sudan and currently sits on the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism Board as the South Sudan Women’s Coalition for Peace Representative.

When I officially moved back to South Sudan a couple of years ago, a friend introduced me to his mechanic who later became my mechanic. His garage is a very small space that can only accommodate just a few cars at ago. The first time I ever took my car for him to fix, he asked me to return the following day to pick it. When I came back that morning, he handed me the key and followed me as I walked towards my car. Just when I was about to open the car, he right away offered to help. “Let me first get it out of there because it will be difficult for you” he said. I looked at him, smiled, and told him thanks but I can get it out.

Several months later, I went back to him for something else. When I returned later that day, he handed me the keys and again, followed me. This time, the car was parked in a complicated spot, for a second in my head I was like “how did you get it there?”  I already knew why he was following me, and again, I told him thanks, I think I can get it out, and I did. 

The third time I took my car to him after such a long time, when I went back to pick it, he just handed me my keys and said, “you drive like a man, I know you can get the car out of there”. I don’t remember what exactly I said back to him. It’s been years, but his statement replays in my head like it was just yesterday. 

Those incidents did not just happen in a vacuum. My mechanic’s assumptions are rooted in the stereotype that “women are bad drivers” and the fact that driving is still considered men’s role. A country like Saudi Arabia just lifted the ban and legalized women driving in 2018 but even in countries that seem progressive, this attitude still strongly holds. Yes, it is legal for women to drive in South Sudan, but the stories I have heard or shared in community with other women make it feel like it’s illegal for women to be on the road driving or riding. I have been harassed countlessly by traffic police officers during the day and military men at checkpoints in the evenings who feel even more offended when I question their actions for no reason other than the fact that I am a woman and how dare?

Gender equality will not be achieved in South Sudan by turning women into experts of their socially ascribed gender roles

I have always wondered, what exactly amounts to a set of ‘good’ driving skills? Most of the car or motorcycle accidents within Juba are mostly between male drivers/riders. The numerous fatal accidents especially on the Juba-Nimule highway involving big trucks, buses, and other small cars all happen under male drivers. Reckless driving/riding is costing us lives every day all over the country. Why have we normalized reckless driving/riding for ‘good’ driving? Why does it feel like a crime to drive or ride responsibility; minding your speed and looking out for other road users including pedestrians? 

Some of the few privileged South Sudanese women who can buy or own private cars/motorcycles for their mobility are defying this gender norm and gradually challenging this stereotype. However, in the private sector, discrimination against women is visible. Most public means of road transportation (motorcycles (boda-boda), buses, minibuses, taxis, tuck-tucks famously known as ‘Raksha’ to many South Sudanese) and businesses in South Sudan are considered jobs for men. This is the same narrative in all the African countries I have been to. Public transportation is an extremely male-dominated field. In Uganda for example where I once lived, as a woman, I found some of these taxi parks and boda-boda stages to be some of the most toxic and rowdily-unsafe places to be. The unwarranted touching and name-calling got me nervous every time I thought about going to a taxi park in Uganda.

However, in South Sudan recently, there is a small shift. A countable number of women are starting to openly express interest and getting employed by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as drivers. When people see a female minibus driver /conductor or just a sight of a woman riding a motorcycle, there is this superficial public excitement or amusement. In some instances, you see people taking photos of the woman without their consent - but the actual experiences of these women daring to take up some of these jobs are not rosy ones. There is a certain level of ‘normality’ seeing women drive private cars than public transportation means and motorcycles (private or commercial).

My friends Sebila who used to ride a motorcycle to work in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal, and Abak who also rides a motorcycle in Kuajok, Warrap State, have a million tales of what it’s like to be riding while female on those streets. But the funny thing is, no one wants to sit with the question of; why is this so rare? What is limiting South Sudanese women from actively participating in this field? Because on the other hand, men are doing jobs that were traditionally considered women’s duties such as cooking as chefs in restaurants, working in salons doing women’s hair, nails, etc., running small local laundry businesses among others. 

Most of the programs designed by NGOs, humanitarian and other development agencies that are doing ‘women empowerment’ programs in South Sudan rather reinforce some of these stereotypes and gender roles. For example, many ‘women economic empowerment’ programs tend to focus on enhancing women’s skills in areas such as catering or cooking, handcrafting, hairdressing, care and hospitality business skills, etc., because those are roles women are easily envisioned in. 

Gender equality will not be achieved in South Sudan by turning women into experts of their socially ascribed gender roles. There is need to focus on breaking these systemic gendered barriers, getting all genders out of the gender box, and facilitating the processes of opening up especially male-dominated fields such as the public transportation sector to women too. Men are not the yardstick, telling a woman “you drive like a man” is not a compliment.