Women behind the wheel defy gender bias in Azerbaijan

Author: Dinara Zeynalova, , Photographer: Emin Mathers

"A female driver caused a traffic jam"

“A female driver drove over a family" 

Azerbaijani media is full of tales of woe about women behind the wheel–even though statistically more accidents are caused by men, according to activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva.

“Recently, a famous male blogger caused a serious accident by repeatedly exceeding the speed limit in a drunken state. He caused the death of his friend and serious injury to himself. But in the headlines of the news stories, we did not see his gender emphasized even once,” she says. “However, I am sure that if a woman had done the same, the idea that women should not be given driver's licenses would be all over the place on social networks.”

The number of women who receive driver's licenses has steadily increased in Azerbaijan over the past several years: in 2009, 5,666 women passed the driving exam; in 2022 the number was 33,081, according to the State Statistics Committee. But social researcher Orkhan Shahbaz notes “certain stereotypes” remain.

Shahla Ismayil, the chairwoman of the Women's Society for Rational Development, says that stereotypes about women who work in public transport and those who drive their own cars run deep. “When we get into a taxi, we don't have an unusual reaction when we see a male driver, right? But passengers react when they see a female driver. Or, on the highway, if someone is not driving well, male drivers ironically say, ‘It's probably the woman driving.’ However, sometimes you see that it is a man.”

Mehdiyeva states that there are more initiatives that encourage strengthening gender inequality in the country, than awareness to address the problem.

“For example, some time ago there was a suggestion that women should ride in the back carriages in the subway or the pink taxis that have been in service for a while,” she says, adding however that these efforts have not stopped a growing number of women from learning to drive.

“If women had stopped driving because of the misconceptions spread during my teenage years, we would still not be seeing female drivers today. Unfortunately, women pursue their goals not because of something, but in spite of it.”

This photo essay features several women who decided to take the risk and follow their dreams behind the wheel.

Pink taxi service was launched specifically for women in 2019.



Nurjahan Jabiyeva has been driving a taxi for 35 years. The mother of five children, she discovered she needed to drive after her husband died and she began selling goods to earn a living. Eventually, she sold her jewelry and bought a car. 

"My friend said, 'Nurjahan, you drive very well. Take my children to school'. At that time, I started to learn both taxi driving and roads,” she recalls. One day, following her daily drive to school, a woman flagged her down for a ride. She has been working as a taxi driver on the side ever since.

This accidental career was the culmination of a childhood dream. She even attended driving school as a young woman, during the Soviet Union. At that time, she says, people were surprised to see female drivers and did not accept them. "I was the only woman at school. At that time, even when I started driving, people thought I was a singer. In those years, usually, female artists had a car."

After years of experience, Nurjahan knows the whole city well but says maps on phones have made it much easier to navigate Baku.

"I used to tell my mother that I would go to Baku to get married and buy a car and drive it. But my husband wouldn't let me drive a car during his lifetime.”

Not everyone was happy with her decision to start working as a taxi driver–her brother stopped speaking to her when he found out, 35 years ago. "My brother is angry with me. We have not spoken since I started to drive. I raised five children with the help of my car and they always supported me,” she says.

For the most part, her passengers have also been good to her. "People are happy when they see me. They say ‘I wish there were more women taxi drivers in the country’, ‘we feel comfortable in this taxi’."

She operates in the city center, usually at night.

"I work between 10pm to 1 am. I am careful when I work. I pick my passengers. Because sometimes it can be dangerous. I receive the payment in advance, because sometimes there may be some who do not pay."

She is also careful with driving rules on the road. "I always drive carefully. But sometimes getting into an accident is not up to you. Once a car passed a red light and hit mine. I was shocked because I didn't expect it at all."

Once an Iranian passenger forgot his wallet in his car. When Nurjahan returned and found the passenger, he was very happy and thanked Nurjahan. 

"You should always be honest with the passengers. My Iranian passenger gave me a gift of 400 manat (roughly $235) that day."

Neighbors in the yard greet Nurjahan on her way to work.

Nurjahan frequently waits for passengers on Samad Vurgun Avenue, at the taxi park in front of The Buzovnaneft Residential Building.



Narmin Mammadova started working as a bicycle courier when she was 17, riding 33 km every day from Sumgait to Baku.

"It is very difficult to do courier work by bicycle, especially if you live in Baku. Drivers don't want to see you. When you go out on the road, they say, ‘Go away, drive on the sidewalk,’ and when you drive on the sidewalk, pedestrians say, ‘Go away, drive on the road.’

The salary drew Narmin to the work, eventually allowing her to save money and buy a motorcycle to replace her bicycle.

"At that time, my friend earned 50 AZN a day riding a bicycle. Now, because there are a lot of couriers, those who work with motorcycles barely earn 50 AZN. Although it is profitable, it is tiring work, especially with a bicycle. We eat lunch at six in the evening. After a little rest, we work until three in the morning."

Narmin's family is against her being a courier.

"They said, ‘A girl doesn't ride a motorcycle.’ ‘A girl doesn't come home late at night.’ They wanted me to sell my motorcycle. That's why I left home last year during the New Year holidays."

Although she prefers extreme sports like dirt biking, Narmin is attentive to the safety of her equipment.

"Sometimes, when cutting motorcycles off on the roads, car drivers manage to make excuses that a motorcycle of this size is also not visible on the road," Narmin says.

Narmin studied at the Baku Music Academy. When she started working as a courier, she secretly bought a bike using the money from a scholarship. She told her family that she was going to classes, but instead, she was delivering orders at work. Eventually, she earned so much as a courier she decided to leave the university entirely.

Narmin used to deliver pizzas but she stopped due to the poor working conditions.

"Sometimes we united and protested. In September of last year, we held a 10-day boycott in the country due to the drop in the income of couriers. Couriers started not taking orders. As a result, Wolt had to make certain changes."

The protesters argued the fees were too low and the couriers were risking their lives to serve as many clients as possible.

Once Narmin was in an accident that left her badly hurt. While the driver–a man–eventually paid her for the damage to her motorcycle and her health bills, the police’s initial instinct to blame her for the accident surprised Narmin.

"What surprised me was that when I talked to the police, they claimed that I came from behind and hit his car."

Ordinary evening for Narmin between orders. Lately, as she is busy as a motorcycle driving instructor and renting motorcycles for movie sets, she relies on delivery apps less often.

Although male workers are often surprised when Narmin comes in to pick up an order, they treat her with respect.

During dinner time, her driving skills make it possible to deliver orders quickly, and therefore more per shift, despite the traffic jams.

"Considering the height of the recent cross motorcycle, I ordered shoes with high soles to make it easier to reach the asphalt," says Narmin.



Elnara had driven for many years when she decided to start working as a taxi driver two years ago, during the pandemic.  

"I have been running a beauty salon for seventeen years. They closed the salons during the quarantine period. I was forced to become a taxi driver."

A female friend working as a taxi driver recommended she give it a try.  First, she suggested her driving services to some of her beauty salon clients. "There have been many times after doing makeup and hair I took them to their destination."

Her family has always supported Elnara's work as a taxi driver. But she says passengers are always surprised when they see a female taxi driver.

"Before getting into the car, they look out of the window several times to see if they are approaching the taxi. I smile and say "come, come, it's me."

"People sometimes ask me ‘How many years have you been working?’ I say ‘I've been working for a long time, don't worry.’ I can sense they are concerned. But after a little while, they relax.”

Even though Elnara’s family and friends know she is driving a taxi, she is reluctant to put a taxi sign on her car, saying she feels “ashamed.”

The beauty salon still operates. Nowadays, Elnara mostly drives, and her daughter looks after the salon.

Elnara is calm and composed–unlike her new car, which is built for speed and maneuverability through Baku traffic.

Elnara drives from evening to morning and tries to choose her passengers carefully, in part due to close calls in the past.

"There was a case that, when I reached the address and phoned, I realized from the customer's voice that he was drunk. Or I saw a customer taking something strange with him. I was scared and drove back. I didn't pick him up because I was worried."

"I don't pick up just anyone. I'm careful because it is very dangerous at night. When an order arrives in the application, I analyze whether it is okay to pick it up.”

Female customers are happy to have a female driver when they order at night. They tell Elnara that they feel safer.

"Sometimes they call the company specifically to say they need a female taxi driver."

Elnara says despite the stereotypes, being a female taxi driver is a rewarding job. 

"You earn your own money. You drive a car all day and make a living. I almost never get tired because I love driving cars. I am also satisfied with my income."

Elnara mainly carries passengers between the city limits and suburban villages. She prefers driving on the highway. Sometimes she takes passengers to other regions of the country as well.

"I get passengers from all the taxi services. Even in [the local app] Uklon. Depending on the time of day, I switch to the one with the most orders. For example, there are almost no orders at night on *9111, but vice versa on Uber," says Elnara.

This story was produced in the framework of the Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer-Autumn 2023.

This story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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