Taxi Sayama

Early on in my Burmese language lessons, one of my teachers taught me a trick for buttering up taxi drivers in Myanmar. The Burmese word for “teacher” is saya (sayama for a female teacher) and the word can also convey general respect for any knowledge or expertise that a person has. Calling a taxi driver saya would convey your respect for his skill as a driver and might make him a bit more inclined to haggle on the price.

It’s almost automatic for me now to refer to taxi drivers as saya, unless they’re noticeably younger, so imagine my surprise when I hailed a cab on a recent evening in Yangon, saying “I’m going downtown, how much sa—” only to realize that I had encountered the first female taxi driver I’d ever seen in Myanmar.

Of course I knew that there were female taxi drivers, just as there were female drivers of other vehicles such as trucks and buses. In some areas of the country they specialize in providing transportation for women who might otherwise feel unsafe, particularly late at night. We haggled for a moment over the price but quickly agreed as I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to ask her about her work.

She was originally from Pyay but had lived in Yangon for a while. I asked her if she liked driving, which may sound like an odd question but I’ve met many taxi drivers who really don’t like the business but continue to drive for various reasons. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “It’s like a hobby. I’ve been interested in driving ever since I was a young girl.”

I often ask taxi drivers how long they’ve been driving and she said that she had been doing it for three years. Before that she had worked for many years as a bus driver. “Why did you change careers?” I asked. “For the money,” she promptly replied. “I have a family with two sons and I have to provide for them.” I hadn’t realized that the salaries were so different but she assured me that they were, and that she regularly made over 30,000 kyat per day as a driver (about $23.50 at the current exchange rate).

A new short documentary produced by Coconuts highlights the discrimination faced by “Yangon’s Fearless Taxi Ladies.” Knowing this, I asked her if she had ever encountered any problems as a female taxi driver. “No, no problems.” “No discrimination from male taxi drivers?” I asked. “No, not at all. In fact, sometimes they go out of their way to help me. It’s because they respect me as a woman.”

Thinking about it for another moment, she added, “Well, occasionally a woman will refuse to hire me as a driver.” “What? Why?” “They don’t believe that I know how to drive this car so they wait and get another taxi. That’s only happened a few times, but only with women and never with men.” Unfortunately, as much as I would have liked to continue talking with her, by that time we had arrived at my destination so I paid her and thanked her for the nice conversation.

My colleague here at Oxford, Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi, has conducted interviews in Myanmar with women who challenge gender boundaries and norms through their professional choices, and while persistence and bravery are regular elements of their stories, so are being discriminated against and ostracized from their families and communities. But it was nice to know that, although the experience of the taxi driver I met may not have been representative, she found a great deal of enjoyment and fulfillment in her work.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.