JAKARTA — Indonesia's sprawling capital, Jakarta, often looks like one massive bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. Commuters spend hours negotiating the city's congested streets, inching forward at a snail's pace, every morning and every night.

Little wonder that so many Jakartans opt for motorbikes, by far the fastest and least expensive option. And while some people own their own, others get around the city on ojeks, or motorcycle taxis. Ojeks are an institution here, and a very male dominated one at that. Of the hundreds of ojek drivers I've encountered, every single one of them was a man — until recently, that is.

It's not that women don't drive motorbikes in Jakarta. There's plenty of that. But when I see gangs of motorcycle drivers hanging around on street corners waiting for customers, they're entirely male. That, at least, was my impression. For confirmation, I decided to ask around.

Josta, a regular commuter, has been in Jakarta for five years. And in all that time, she's only been driven by men. "I've never had a woman taxi driver. Ever! Not since I've been in Jakarta," she told me.

Women drivers for the Indonesian company Go-Jek — Photo: GO-JEK

But others I spoke to said they have, occasionally, been driven by a woman. "I have a vivid memory once of a driver apologizing for being female," said Fajar, who takes an ojek several times a day. "She said, 'You don’t mind taking a female driver do you?' And I was like, 'Of course not, why would it be a problem?'" he recalled. Fajar told me that in two years of using ojeks, he's had maybe five women drivers.

They're out there, in other words. But not easy to find.

After searching for some time, I finally crossed paths with Rifka Kurniawan, who has been making her living as a motorcycle taxi driver for over a year. "There are many customers who don't want a female driver," she told me. "They want to cancel. I have to say, 'No, don’t cancel'"

Rifka loves the job, but admitts that it's a daily struggle to be accepted on equal terms. And the biggest problem doesn’t come from other drivers, but from customers. "Just this morning I took an order," she told me. "I hadn't yet met the customer, and they telephoned me. I was already at the place to pick them up, and then they asked to cancel."

Rifka asked the customer why they wanted to cancel, suspecting it was simply because she is a woman. Clearly, well-worn stereotypes about female drivers are hard to break. "There are people who think women drivers are still learning to drive," she said.

Wilhelmina, also a driver, agrees. "Sometimes if it's a man they say they;re embarrassed to drive with a woman, that they don't want to sit at the back," she told me.

The number of female ojek drivers is growing — Photo: GO-JEK

A frequent ojek user I met named Rizal said he was so used to having male drivers that the first time he got a woman driver he was uncomfortable, and so asked her to sit at the back while he drove. The woman refused. But other female drivers have let him drive.

Wilhelmina and Rifka admit that they too sometimes let male passengers drive while they sit at the back, just so the passengers won’t cancel and find a male driver instead. But when I asked female ojek passengers, they told me that, given the choice, they'd prefer a woman driver.

"I think it’s better to have a female driver than a male driver, because I don't feel as afraid with women" Saiwan, a 17-year-old Jakarta resident, told me. "Sometimes male drivers will ask where I'm from, how old I am. I feel scared. So yeah, I'd chose female driver."

Saiwan isn't the only woman I spoke with who has had to deal with that kind of sexual harassment. Josta said the last time she took a motorcycle taxi, the driver asked: "Where's your husband? Are are you single or not?”

Female ojek drivers may be few and far between. But their numbers are growing. Rifka told me that she organized a group for women drivers, with 100 members already. Even male passengers are, in cases, starting to warm to the idea. Wilhelmina told me about one male passenger who recently took a nap on the back of her bike as she zipped through the city.


See more from Culture / Society here