I don’t remember the flight to India. I do, however, remember the car ride to the new college I would be attending. For twenty-eight minutes, I sat in the passenger seat as the hired driver wove between cars, large trucks, tiny bicycles, scooters with six people on them, and herds of indifferent cows. My eyes widened in an attempt to take it all in, and it wasn’t until we had stopped moving that I realized I’d barely been breathing.
“Why do I need a driver?” I asked my mom. I was nineteen and had grown up in America, where we all itched to get our driver's licenses as soon as possible. A driver's license was independence, the only freedom we could claim as teenagers living under our parents’ roofs and rules. I was not ready to give that up, along with all the other things I had set aside to start medical school in India.
The driver chimed in before my mom could: “Girls don’t drive around here. It’s not safe.”
"Here" was a tiny town in southern India where men drove themselves but women and children were chauffeured by drivers or husbands or used public transportation. Many women don’t drive in parts of India because of the seldom-occurring but oft-feared dangers of being pulled over by a rogue police officer or being roadblocked and violated by men who halted cars that drove through the narrower village roads. Other women won’t drive because of the social convention that links affluence to the ability to hire a driver. Compounded by the fact that public transportation at night was not (and still isn't) safe for females, women became immobilized as their drivers went home at 5:00 p.m. each day.
A 5:00 p.m. curfew? That was all my teenage ears needed to hear.
Within a few weeks of settling in, I started secret lessons with my driver to learn how to drive a stick shift, got my Indian driver’s license, and slowly began easing into the high-speed madness of India’s morning rush hour. Within a few months, I was driving myself to school. I was the only female student to do so. It was 2005, a year that seems too recent for me to have been the first.
Then, the most curious thing happened—almost imperceptibly at first. One day, I noticed more and more of my female classmates driving themselves to school. I smiled at the women who pulled their cars up next to mine on the way to a late-night movie. I listened as my aunts made appointments without wondering if their husbands would be available to drive them. Over the course of the years I was there, I witnessed the women in this small town realize they had given up more than the ability to drive. They had forsaken their freedom and independence for affluent customs and paternal protection, unknowingly contributing to the patriarchal culture that exists in India. They had willingly taken a backseat. But not anymore.
When I set out to drive myself around town, it wasn’t with the intent to trigger a revolution. It was for my own selfish desire to preserve the independence I had grown up with. But that, I realized, is how change begins. It’s one person recognizing that he or she deserves a certain right and going after it. In that process, that person unknowingly becomes the face of opportunity, allowing others to see that something they deserve is within their reach as well.
Maybe I had nothing to do with the transformation that occurred in that small town. Maybe the female liberation that took place was bound to happen all along. I’ll never be sure. All I know is that I leaned in and stepped on the gas, and everyone else who wanted to come along for the ride did too.
Sindhura Kolli is a recently graduated M.D. and writer living in Los Angeles