TYRE, Lebanon: Eight years ago, Faten Damrieh decided to open a driving school for women in the southern coastal city of Tyre, to prove that women can steer cars just like they do their households.
“Women should have more confidence in themselves and in what they can achieve,” Damrieh, 30, says of her unusual profession.
“I drive the teaching car, which has two steering wheels; it always draws attention from people. ... I don’t mind receiving silly looks and comments from passers-by and male motorists,” she adds.
“I learned how to drive 10 years ago, and then a woman came to me by chance and asked me to teach her and that’s how it all started,” she says. “I enjoy every moment, especially when I discovered that there are still some men who don’t like to see women driving.”
“The women in Lebanon are deprived of their rights, and when people see me teaching a woman how to drive I always hear men mocking us. They always say ‘Look they both want to die,’” she adds.
Damrieh describes with pleasure how she teaches women when they start learning how to drive.
“I tell them to leave their fears outside the car, but they usually hold on tight to the steering wheel, and they keep turning the car off. I start with explaining the function of the steering parts of the car, and let the women drive on the street immediately.”
Damrieh, who teaches for 12 hours every day, says that a woman needs two hours of driving sessions for five days, noting that she gives extra sessions for those who find it more difficult than others.
“Married men come to me and ask me to teach their wives. They say: We want them to learn how to drive so that they can go and get whatever they need so we can be relieved of their endless demands. One of them joked once and said “I want you to let her fall in a deep valley,” she quips.
In addition to Lebanese women, she counts Russians, Palestinians and Iraqis among her students.
“I was asked to teach several women who work with the United Nations how to drive but there was a language barrier. But I taught Russian women who spoke Arabic fluently. I also taught women who work in humanitarian organizations and local communities,” she adds.
“I don’t fear driving with beginners, because the steering wheel in front of me is connected to hers, so are the breaks. The most important thing is to make the women trust in their abilities to control the car.”
Damrieh charges $20 for a one hour driving session.
“A lot of social figures and prominent women have learned how to drive using this steering wheel,” she says, pointing to her car.
“There are also men and teenagers who come to me but I don’t teach them,” she adds. “Male passers-by and motorists keep telling us ‘Watch out you broke my leg’ or ‘Oh my God, we will get killed.’ They always laugh at us.”
Of her experience with women, she says, “I concentrate on teaching them the rules and the signs on the road and I always test beginners with sudden questions; however, everyone loves falling into the potholes on the street,” she jokes.
“I also teach women how to check the engine oil and water, and to always pay attention to the engine’s temperature and how to change a flat tire without anyone’s help.”
Linda Diab came to Damrieh for lessons after she grew tired of learning with her temperamental husband.
“I failed to learn how to drive with my husband. He gets angry very fast and is tense all the time, whereas here I feel relaxed and confident. I can’t wait to take the driving test and get my car,” Diab said.
Fida al-Bardan, a college student who goes back and forth from Tyre to Beirut every day, was also taking driving lessons with Damrieh.
“At last I have a driving license and soon I will drive my own car and never again have to sit through the endless babble of taxi drivers,” Bardan said.