When an 18-year-old Shila Dawre decided to leave her parental home in Parbhani district to go to Pune, all she had was Rs 12 in hand and passion in her eyes to chase her dreams.
No more was she going to be told that her aspirations were worthless and driving was not a profession girls from good households ventured into. Not in the 1980s at least.
And this young woman shut all these stereotypes down when she became India’s first woman auto driver. Rubbing shoulders with khaki-clad men driving rickshaws, clad in her regular salwaar kameez, she drove around the lanes of Pune, owning them.
Recorded in the Limca Book of World Records as the first woman auto-rickshaw driver in the country, Shila Dawre never in her life imagined becoming a trailblazer to women who dreamt of driving auto-rickshaws but restrained themselves because it was a male-dominated sphere.
“I never took up the profession to make a record, In fact I was unaware of the Limca Book Records bestowing the title upon me, until I was approached by people,” she says in a video interview with Pune-based Autowale.in. She is associated with them to encourage women to take up the profession of driving.
But her journey, like most women who established themselves in a male bastion, came with its share of struggles. Her dream began in a social setting where most women in Indian homes were given basic education, just to be married off and serve the conventional roles of homemakers and child bearers.
But Shila, being the rebellious girl that she was, wouldn’t let marriage come in the way of fulfilling her dream of driving.
“I wanted to make it my profession. My parents initially objected to my decision, but now they have accepted me for who I am,” she said.
But the familial pressure wasn’t the only thing bogging her down. The societal pressure was no less. She had decided to challenge the patriarchy after all.
When she kickstarted her journey as an auto-driver, she came across many people who were unwilling to rent out their auto-rickshaws to her on the sole ground that she was a woman and they were unsure if she would safely drive their vehicle, constantly reiterating the stereotype of women being bad/unsafe drivers.
But she wasn’t going to give up. She got in touch with various women self-help groups who helped her avail of opportunities to drive auto-rickshaws when the regular drivers were on leave.
Earning a meagre income from these rides and saving every penny, she managed to buy an auto-rickshaw and rented a room in a slum for herself.
She remembers how parents would often point at her, telling their kids of the lady auto-rickshaw driver in their neighbourhood. Despite garnering appreciation from many about having the courage to break into the male-dominated professions, there were certainly some who looked down upon her for joining the profession.
But her pillars of strength during these times were her fellow drivers. She recalls an incident when she felt extremely threatened when a traffic constable, hit her in a heated argument.
She hit him right back and was moved to see her auto-rickshaw union members joining hands to protest against the attack.
From a matador, a school bus and autorickshaw Shila boasts of having driven for over 13 years from 1988 to 2001. It is unfortunate that she had to stop driving due to health issues. But that did not deter her from starting her own travel company with her husband, Shirish Kamble, also an auto driver, with whom she has two daughters.
Shirish, who stood by his wife through thick and thin, encourages people, especially men to change, their views towards women.
“If you support your women to chase their dreams and aspirations, without a doubt will they lead the progress of their families,” he said.
One of the prime reasons why Shila encourages more and more women to join driving is to allow the better safety of women. With the growing incidents of crimes against women, she believes women feel a lot safer travelling alone when other women drive them.
Shila believes gender and social bias is no way should dictate what anybody wants to do with their lives.
“More women need to break barriers and make a place for themselves in male-centric fields,” she said.
Her dream is to start an academy to train women auto-rickshaw drivers.
“I feel that an academy by a woman for women will instill more courage and faith among women drivers,’’ she says.
We salute trailblazers like Shila who did not give up her dreams in the face of opposition and continues to inspire a generation of women auto-drivers across India. We hope many women continue to join the profession and owns the lanes of their India, like the efficient drivers they are!