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The Female Rider


Not many females work as drivers. And the ones that do tend to be stigmatised and harassed. Can female drivers be their own saviors?

Ramla’s earnings mainly stem from driving a bentor – a three-wheeled vehicle that merged pedicab and motorcycle, with the driver at the back and the covered seat for the passengers at the front. It remains one of the most common modes of transportation in Gorontalo City – even at present times when consumers are also offered ride-hailing services. Bentorbehaves in a similar fashion as taxis whereby drivers wander around the city whilst waiting for a passenger to demand their service. While earning a living through riding bentor is not unusual, Ramla’s decision to ride bentor is considered unusual, for nothing other than the fact that Ramla is a woman.

Ramla’s contribution to the household earnings is desirable because her husband is a fisherman whose income is extremely uncertain. He goes out of town for an average of ten days per month and during unfortunate seasons, he might not return before a full month or longer and he is only able to send Rp. 200,000-300,000 every ten days. It is hard to fulfill the needs of a household of five with that amount and yet, when Ramla selected an occupation that would allow her to not only be financially independent but also support and take care of her family, she was demanded to rethink her choice. Her family questioned her decision. Her neighbors looked at her weirdly and confronted her: “You are a woman. Why are you riding a bentor? Why don’t you just stay at home or find another source of income?” And she responded: “Because I want to be independent. I do not want to be dependent on my husband or anyone….besides, I could earn decent money whilst still managing my working hours”. Why are women tended to be forbidden from making a decision that is unaccustomed to societal expectations?

Breaking the Rules

Ramla is disobedient to not just the societal expectations of which field a woman can be in but also how she would run her own employment.

Bentor fares are determined based on a mutual, spoken agreement between the driver and the passenger. The fares are not only estimated by distance but also by how many passengers there will be on that single ride. A bentor can accommodate up to four passengers, although sometimes you can catch quite a few cases where one bentor is ridden by more than four passengers – with three sitting at the front and one sitting behind the driver. Usually, the prospective passengers will inform the driver of their destination and ask how much the journey would cost. In other cases, the passengers will be the ones that propose a fare to the driver and ask if it is sufficient.

As a bentor driver, Ramla accepts however much or little her passenger offers because she says “I know that not everybody has the money to pay a good amount. Sometimes that’s the best they could give me, and I want to help them reach their destination”. Her attitude toward money is reflected in how she can make informed decisions that reduce her ability to earn a sufficient amount of revenue each day. For her, there are things more important than money, such as her own safety.

The Male Gaze

Being a female driver, Ramla often gets very disturbing comments and unwanted attention from male drivers in public places such as the farmers’ markets where she was presently waiting for new passengers. She is often asked by male drivers about her marital status in a menace “do you have a husband? If you have none, I will take you as mine”. Following the numerous instances that occurred, she decided that she would no longer wait for customers at these promising pick-up points but rather just wander around. But she added one further caveat to her service: no male passengers are allowed. This decision should not be seen as ‘anti-men’ but rather a response made by a woman who is protecting herself from danger when no one else would.

Ramla has strict working hours: she drives from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon. She will only break the rule if her revenue falls significantly short that day and is insufficient to meet household needs. In that instance, she will wait at the night market for prospective passengers. “Why the night markets?” She explained how the night markets are usually attended by parents with their kids and so these are generally safe areas to pick up passengers. But even there, she always avoids the male crowds. After finishing two rides, she will usually go straight home.

Even though a bentor ride is now available through ride-hailing services, Ramla only offers the offline service since she has no knowledge of operating her smartphone other than for WhatsApp and traditional text messages and phone calls. But from a conversation with her, she explicitly utters that she has no need for abundance, or growth, or anything else. She only needs enough for her family: her two kids, her nephew that is now living with her since his parents passed away, and her spouse. She has no incentive to be digital. She only aims for enough.

How much is enough for Ramla? She said that on average, she would earn gross daily revenue of Rp. 50,000-60,000, which she deems as a sufficient revenue. She uses Rp. 10,000 for gasoline and Rp. 20,000 for renting the bentor. Yes, Ramla does not own the bentor. So, her net daily income is a mere Rp. 20,000-30,000 per day or Rp. 600,000-900,000 per month, which is equal to her fisherman husband’s revenue. And the combined amount of Ramla and her husband sits just slightly above the poverty line of Gorontalo City. Perhaps, if Ramla was able to drive bentor without high risks of harassment, she would have been able to generate a higher amount of revenue during the same working hours. But this issue requires a city-level change, something that Ramla herself could not manifest.

A Call for A New Policy

Ramla had to break through a wall that separates women from being able to work in a male-dominated occupation. On top of that, she is left with extra homework: to survive all the challenges that come with riding a bentor. Driving a bentor is a form of informal self-employment; the drivers work for no one but themselves.

The responsibility to protect female drivers from harm should be undertaken by the Local Authority. The Local Government could learn from practices implemented by the UK Government in requiring pedlars – the moving street traders, to license their occupation by requesting the pedlar’s certificate from the local authority. In order to acquire the bentor rider’s certificate, the applicants must also undergo training regarding sexual harassment, sexual assault and misconduct, and street safety – which will make them aware of how to protect themselves but also how to treat fellow drivers and passengers. Additionally, the Local Authority should create a dedicated safety hotline for drivers and passengers. The number of the safety hotline should be written on the license. The certificate should be laminated and worn on the driver’s neck or stuck onto the bentor so that in this case the passengers will be instantly made aware of the available resources.

The upside of this change is also the ability of Governments to protect bentor drivers during uncertain economic conditions. When Ramla was asked whether she received any social assistance from the Government during the COVID-19 lockdown, she said that she received none and as a result, she had to do some other informal work. During COVID-19, she used to knock on people’s houses asking if they were in need of a cleaning service, no matter how small the payment will be. With bentor drivers being a documented and licensed occupation, the Local Authority could finally do the job that they should have been doing and the drivers can receive the financial and legal protection that they deserve.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 03 — September 2022


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