Sara Bahayi is Afghanistan’s first female taxi driver in recent memory, and she is believed to be the only one actively working in the country. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

At first glance, the Toyota Corolla looked like any other taxi bumping along the craggy street. In the back seat, three women wore blue burqas that covered their faces and bodies. In the front passenger seat, a bearded man sat stone-faced. The radio piped out a soulful Afghan song.

But the person behind the steering wheel — with coal-black hair, round face and purple scarf — has made taxi No. 12925 a revolution of sorts.

Sara Bahayi is Afghanistan’s first female taxi driver in recent memory, and she is believed to be the only one actively working in the country. She’s 38. She’s unmarried. She’s outspoken. In this highly patriarchal society, where women are considered second-class citizens and often abused, ­Bahayi is brazenly upending gender roles.

Every day, she plies her trade in a business ruled by conservative men. She endures condescending looks, outright jeers, even threats to her life. Most men will not enter her taxi, believing that women should never drive for a man.

Yet Bahayi earns $10 to $20 a day, she says, enough to provide for her 15 relatives, including her ailing mother. She relies on ferrying women shackled by traditions and fear, who vicariously live their dreams of freedom through her.

Some men condemn Sara Bahayi’s job. Her mother fears she’ll be killed. But she wants to support her family. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

In her taxi, Bahayi tests boundaries, real and imagined, as she traverses streets and highways. One day, she took passengers to a Taliban area when every male taxi driver refused to go. Another day, she convinced a man — who believed, like many Afghans, that Islam prohibits women from driving — that his beliefs were wrong.

With every fare, Bahayi says, she is determined to send a message to Afghan women: Get out of the house. Earn money. Don’t rely on men.

“For how long should women depend on men’s income, taking the men’s orders?” she asked. “I want them to be independent, to do something for themselves.”

Role model for women

Improving the lives of women was a key American goal after the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001. Far more girls today are in school. Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women.

In practice, however, tribal traditions and religious strictures still subjugate most Afghan women and girls. Discrimination and limited access to opportunities are the norm. Violence against women remains exceptionally high.

United Nations officials and women’s rights activists fear that the fragile gains women have made will be further eroded in light of the recent departure of most U.S. and international forces, a resurgence of the Taliban, and expected reductions in international aid as the U.S.-led mission concludes.

Today, few role models for Afghan women exist. There are female ministers and lawmakers, as well as Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s modern and sophisticated first lady. But most hail from privileged or liberal families. Many Afghan women do not identify with them.

Bahayi stands guard on the roof of her house with a loaded gun after recent threats of burglary. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

Bahayi, though, lives in one of Mazar-e Sharif’s poorest enclaves. She has neither an influential position nor a powerful family.

All she has is a hunting rifle she keeps loaded in case of intruders. Every day, she is among the rank and file, empowering local women with each fare.

“She sends the message that men and women have equal rights,” said Arifa Saffar, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, a nonprofit group helping women in Bahayi’s Balkh province. “If a man can drive a taxi, why not a woman? She has shown the reality that a woman can drive just as well as a man.”

‘They feel safe’

Two years ago, Bahayi took a class to acquire her license to drive a taxi. There were 30 other students, all men. To escape the jokes and stares, she sat in the back. One day, she recalled, another student told her it was disgraceful for a woman to take a class with men.

“If you don’t feel shame, I feel shame for you,” he said.

Two weeks later, she passed the road test and received her license. Only nine of the men passed. The man who chastised her failed.

It was not the first hurdle Bahayi had overcome. In the late 1990s, the Taliban killed her brother-in-law, and she was forced to care for her sister and her seven children. Bahayi worked for various aid agencies, eking out a living. A husband would never have allowed her to work, she said.

“That’s why I am single,” Bahayi said, with a faint smile.

The Taliban didn’t allow women to work or leave their houses without male escorts or burqas. So a nephew always walked with her. Not even her next-door neighbors knew she was employed, she said.

When the Taliban government was ousted, Bahayi became a high school teacher. But she couldn’t support her family on the income. So she decided to get her driver’s license.

Bahayi has driven for five years, the past two of which she has spent in Mazar-e Sharif. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

A sympathetic male neighbor taught her how to drive — in 15 days. And by selling a piece of land she inherited from her father, she bought a black Toyota sedan. She began transporting neighborhood women who felt more at ease with her than a male driver. They encouraged her to become a taxi driver. Bahayi sensed an economic opportunity.

The day after she received her taxi license, her first client, a woman, was so stunned to see Bahayi behind the wheel that she asked for a tour around Mazar-e Sharif. Along the way, children, and even some men, clapped and cheered. “It was really an interesting day for me,” Bahayi said.

But most men refused to step into her cab. At the taxi stand, her male competitors tried to block her car or stop her potential passengers. Eventually, they got accustomed to seeing her around. But their disapproval persists.

“I will never allow my wife to drive,” said taxi driver Jan Mir, 40. “Women are forbidden to drive. It is not socially acceptable. If we did so, everyone will say bad things about our family within our tribe.”

But some men in Bahayi’s neighborhood see a layer of security for their family’s women.

“Being a female taxi driver is like being a female doctor,” said Mohammad Akram, 50, a bearded man with three of his female relatives inside Bahayi’s taxi on a recent day. “Our women feel comfortable with a woman driver. They feel safe.”

Breaking barriers

Bahayi drops her neighbors at a health clinic in Mazar-e Sharif. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

Safe. It’s a feeling that is vanishing for Bahayi.

As she has become well known in this province because of local media coverage, threats against her have grown. But so has her resistance.

“You want to start prostituting in your taxi, taking clients from one place to another,” one person, using a female name, wrote on Bahayi’s Facebook page. “You are defaming the Afghan name.”

Bahayi responded: “Coward. It is very shameful that you are hiding behind your sister’s name and you call me a prostitute. If you are brave, introduce yourself. Who are you?”

But she is not taking her security lightly. This month, intruders tried to enter her house, she said. Perhaps they were after her beehives, which produce honey she sells to supplement her income. Perhaps they despised her career.

The next day, she bought the rifle. Now she and her brothers take turns sitting on their roof at night, guarding their house.

“My mom doesn’t want me to be a taxi driver,” Bahayi said. “One day, she asked me: ‘Why are you still driving? One day they will kill you.’ ”

A girl looks out the back window of Bahayi's taxi. (Andrew Quilty/For The Washington Post)

Two months ago, some women came to the taxi stand, seeking to be driven to a funeral in a Taliban-infested area. All the male taxi drivers refused. So Bahayi donned a man’s coat and sunglasses and drove the women. She knew she faced a beating, or worse, if the Islamist insurgents learned a female was behind the wheel.

She has inspired at least seven other women to learn how to drive, said Saffar of the Afghan Women’s Network. All run private car services for female clients. Bahayi hopes they will become taxi drivers someday.

Now, Bahayi wants to break another barrier. She’s negotiating with some men to become partners in a car dealership. She will acquire the dealership license, and they will lease the place. Eventually, she said, she plans to kick her partners out — and replace them with women. It will become, she hopes, Afghanistan’s first female-owned car dealership.