By midnight on most evenings, the small parking lot outside of King Palace is filled with cabs. Inside, drivers poke at plates of flame-red shahi karahi or chili chicken with naan and eye the wall-mounted TV set that, when I arrive late on a Tuesday, is playing Bollywood music videos. The drivers who come to this diner on the bleak stretch of Church Street north of Bloor were born in Pakistan or Kenya or India or Iran or Somalia, but—like 98.9 per cent of this city’s 10,356 licensed cab drivers—they have one thing in common: All of them are men.
Ibrahim Mohamed still has six hours to go in a 12-hour shift when he pulls into the lot, a Bluetooth headset in one ear. “The way I see it, this job, there’s a lot of risk involved,” he says, when I ask him why he thinks women drivers are so scarce. “It’s an easy target, to be honest. Somebody sitting behind you, anything can happen.” Bad things often do—according to Statistics Canada, cab drivers are murdered on the job at a rate higher than any other lawful profession. When I ask another driver in a grey shalwar kameez, he tells me that “the answer will be the same from all the cab drivers. There’s no protection for the females. The customers sometimes are so scary that the male drivers, they are scared.” And once the sun goes down, all the men agree, it gets a lot more dangerous for everyone.
Still, there are a few women who brave not only driving a cab, but driving one at night. I hear about two of them, Maple Leaf Taxi drivers who work outside of Pape Station, from Victor, another one of the men at King Palace. “They’re driving tonight,” he tells me. “They may be sitting there now. You may be lucky to see them.”
Half an hour later, I’m waiting at Pape and Danforth when a big blue-and-white cab with a woman behind the wheel takes a spot in the taxi stand up the street. As I walk up and lean over to tell her that I’m a reporter, she rolls down the passenger-side windows a few inches, though I don’t hear the click of any doors unlocking. She can’t talk now, she tells me, but I can call her the following afternoon, when she’s not working, and scribbles her name on a card: Betty.
When I call that number the next day, Betty Belhu passes the phone to her niece Leah Gebremichael, who winds up speaking for both of them. “I think we’re the only two ladies who drive at night,” the 26-year-old says, matter-of-factly. Both she and Belhu, 39, were born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. Now, both drive their own cabs and look out for each other. “We’re constantly talking on the phone, just informing one another where we are and where we’re heading and all that stuff.” Gebremichael has only been really scared once. “It happened to me because I was brand new,” she says. “With experience, you get to learn the tricks of how to keep yourself somewhat safe.” (She’s been driving for a little over a year, Belhu for five.) That one night, a drunk customer tried to grab her, and she ran right out of her cab. “It wasn’t much of a big deal,” she insists. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the highway!”
It’s often male taxi drivers, rather than male riders, who give these two female cabbies the biggest hassle. Some glare at them, or spit on the ground when they see them, or “run their mouth.” When I ask Gebremichael what they get called, she doesn’t know—she and Belhu don’t speak the languages people are using to curse at them. “Some of them are just not used to seeing a woman do a man’s job, let alone working, you know what I mean?”
Customers, though, are mostly grateful once the initial shock wears off. (In Toronto, the split between men and women is less stark among licensed cab owners than licensed drivers, with women making up 15.5 per cent of the former group, though very few of them apparently drive.) “We hear a lot of compliments about the cab being very neat, and our driving,” Gebremichael says. Female customers say that they feel safer, too; some suggest that the pair should found their own cab company with only female drivers. But Gebremichael has long had other plans: She’s saving up money to get an international development degree and then hopes to work for a peacekeeping company overseas. She thinks there will be plenty of women here to take her place, though. “In our circle as it is, a lot more women are getting the licence now,” she says, “I think because they see that we’ve been doing it for a while, and the risk isn’t as much a factor.”
THE AUTO-GLASS CEILING
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