Women and the wheel
I have a confession: I’m not very good at reverse parking.
After holding a driver’s license for three years, I think I have a decent track record on the road. No accidents, two tickets for letting my front wheels touch the yellow boxes of Makati, and two parking mistakes leading to minimal car scratches. No more. I’ve also mastered the basics: forward parking, parallel parking in the packed side streets of New Manila, U-turns, night driving, city driving, and highway driving, each accomplished with an acceptable degree of mastery.
And yet somehow, despite adequate hand-eye coordination, the skill of reverse parking eludes me. Each fraught attempt ends up with my car at a sort of odd angle, both an eyesore and an embarrassment. I don’t yet understand what the problem is, and I’m still hopeful that one day, with more practice, I’ll be able to reverse and swing into a parking space with ease.
It doesn’t change the fact that I often feel my driving skills are setting women and feminism back 50 years.
Women and driving have been the subject of controversial discussions before. Saudi women are still penalized for driving. There was also, in the last year, news (as published in The Guardian) about a number of orthodox Jewish leaders in a north London community wanting to ban women from driving their children to school. In light of all of these, I occasionally feel that my own inadequacy justifies the sneering attitude that a number of men hold about female drivers. In discussing why women shouldn’t drive, whether the reasons cited are our general incompetence or a lack of modesty and propriety—words that are disturbing to hear in this context in this day and age—the end result for Filipino women is that our presence is tolerated on the road but considered both anomalous and possibly dangerous.
We’ve heard it all before: When a female driver makes a mistake, the remark “Babae kasi” (because she’s a woman) follows all too often. This bland, garden-variety sexism has followed me to this day when I can’t leave a parking space without someone unnecessarily tapping the trunk of my car to “help” me—someone who hadn’t felt it necessary to do the same for the male motorist who left the lot before me. Just this morning, it happened again: When I rolled the window down to say I didn’t need help, thanks very much, the toothless old bystander shrugged and said, “Babae ka kasi.” I’ve certainly never heard its equivalent hurled at my brother or male friends—“Lalaki ka kasi” (because you’re a man).
The sexism is still there when a passenger says “You’re such a girl driver!” when I exclaim at the size of the trucks on Edsa and express my fear of getting crushed by careless truck drivers. It’s there again when I am driving a group of men and my unfamiliarity with the terrain leads to disparaging and, I feel, unfair remarks on my driving skills.
Insidiously, it’s still present when men profess an inordinate amount of admiration for the fact that I drive manual versus automatic, as though women were somehow expected to be less capable of operating a stick shift. Some men pride themselves in being gentlemanly, opening car doors for women and giving their unsolicited help when a woman tries to back out of a parking space or, God forbid, to park without their help. On one level the sentiment is admirable, but as evolving feminism seems to demonstrate, this benevolent sexism—the idea that women are somehow in need of help or care—may be the more dangerous kind.
In each of these situations my protest dies in my throat, as I am unable to articulate that whatever skills I may lack in driving, I don’t think they’re attached to the absence of a Y chromosome in my karyotype. It feels like a discussion that there’s no point in having—a discussion that a woman can never win. All the things I do well as a driver will always be the exception and all the things I do wrong will be the rule. I have no way to be able to say, without sounding hysterical, that I would need some extremely high-quality evidence before I would agree that my imperfections, which happen to fall into a female stereotype, have nothing to do with my sex and everything to do with me.
But that’s always been the problem, isn’t it? It has been argued that the inherent problem of sexism isn’t the ability to treat women as women, but the inability to treat them as people, with as much complexity, and with as much range for experience and inexperience, for competence and incompetence, as any man. An accident involving a female driver would draw disdainful remarks linking it to gender.
Meanwhile, while we have little high-quality data on road safety among men and women in the Philippines, the World Health Organization fact sheets still attest that men are more likely to be involved in and to die in a vehicular accident than women. Indeed, as an intern in one of the largest trauma centers in Metro Manila, I never once encountered a woman driver who had been involved in an accident of her own making.
But then it would be unfair to draw conclusions from only this anecdotal data, wouldn’t it? That would be stereotyping, or making conclusions based on inadequate data. Right?
Today, on my way out of a precarious parking space in the church parking lot, I shoot an apologetic smile at the man sitting in the car beside mine; my awkward parking hasn’t put him to any inconvenience since I parked within the lines, but I see him roll his eyes anyway and I wince as his mouth forms the words: “Sabi na, babae eh.” Maybe, I think, one day I will be able to apologize for my inadequate parking without needing to apologize for being a woman.
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