When passengers hop into Marina Martin’s light blue taxi, they often do a double take.
“Most passengers are surprised when they open the door of my taxi and find the driver is actually a lady,” said Marina, clad in the classic Blue Bird batik uniform.
Nyla, another female driver who for five months has worked for the Tiara Express taxi service, is getting used to the same reaction.
“First if they get into my taxi it’s, ‘Wow, you’re a woman.’ They are surprised,” she said. “But I’m happy because they ask why I want to be a taxi driver, and I tell them it’s because I like my job.”
Marina did not plan to become a taxi driver. She was accustomed to a rigorous training regimen as a practitioner of pencak silat, an Indonesian martial art, and competed internationally, winning the gold medal at the SEA Games in 1980.
She won many medals during her years of competing, but after giving birth to a daughter and struggling to support herself on an athlete’s salary, Marina’s realized her fighting days were over.
“I had to make a living because my marriage didn’t go according to plan. I got divorced and I was only a high school graduate,” she said.
Out of necessity, Marina applied for a job as a taxi driver in 1989, becoming a pioneer in a field dominated by men. Her first application was rejected but she was persistent, and eventually got her application to Blue Bird’s founder, Mutiara Djokosoetono. Twenty-two years ago, she became Blue Bird’s first female driver.
“I don’t like to work in an office — that forces me to sit there all day,” she said. “And I really love to drive. It just came to mind that I should apply to Blue Bird to be a taxi driver.”
Change at Blue Bird, however, wasn’t instant. “After I was accepted at Blue Bird, several other female drivers were also accepted there [not though recruitment, but from personal requests],” she said. “But then Blue Bird shut down the spots for female drivers, and there was a time when there were no new female taxi drivers.”
After driving for four years, Marina decided to try her luck in other pursuits, including acting in action movies, opening a restaurant that served duck, working as a private driver and working in a Southeast Sulawesi hotel. But in January of this year, she rejoined Blue Bird.
“In the last five years, Blue Bird officially opened recruitment for female drivers,” she said.
Nyla, like Marina, was not happy with working in an office and decided to become a taxi driver because she enjoys driving and meeting passengers, though one aspect of the job does bother her.
“I don’t like it when passengers ask me about me status — whether I am married or not. Oh my God,” she laughed. “Sometimes I say I am married, sometimes I say I am single. If I see that the passenger is a bit naughty, I will say that I am married.”
Another female driver inspired Nyla to give taxi driving a shot.
“I went to Plaza Senayan and I saw a female taxi driver named Mbak Inggit, and I asked her how to become a driver for the unit,” Nyla said. “I found the job on my own, on my own initiative.”
The Express Group started employing female drivers in 2008, and among its staff of thousands it currently has four female drivers who all work for the Tiara premium service. Blue Bird has 50 female drivers on a staff of about 20,000 for the Jakarta area.
“We welcome females drivers to become Express regular taxi drivers as long as they meet the criteria and requirements of the Express Group,” said Express chief financial officer David Santoso.
When Blue Bird first began employing female drivers, some worried about security at night as well as potential robbery and violence. Female customers, however, created a demand for female drivers.
“The customers have responded and we will continue the program,” said Teguh Wijayanto, Blue Bird’s head of public relations.
Marina has a loyal following of 20 regular customers who contact her by phone, and Nyla has just started to build a clientele with four regular customers.
“Female passengers are so grateful when they hop into my taxi. They feel safe because the driver is female,” Marina said. “They often ask why I want to do this job, they ask about my family, about how hard it is to become a female driver in Jakarta and, best of all, they usually give me more tips.”
Luckily, Marina and Nyla don’t mind the traffic jams that plague Jakarta.
“The traffic is not entirely bad,” Marina said. “During rush hour, there are a lot of passengers waiting on the side of the road. And during traffic, I use my time to explore shortcuts in Jakarta.”
Over the past two decades, Marina has watched Jakarta evolve into a bustling, cosmopolitan center.
“I see how this city has changed dramatically,” she said. “Back in 1989, it was OK to drive a taxi all around the city, but not anymore. The traffic is really mad. I barely saw competitors back then, but now there are a lot of taxis.”
Marina has driven high-ranking government officials and the wives of generals during her career.
“I feel grateful for my job as a taxi driver because I get many chances to meet a lot of different people,” she said. “Sometimes, I even find that richer people have worse problems than mine. It makes me feel so tough.”
Both women have had unruly drunk passengers get into their cabs, and both have stood their ground. Marina and Nyla said male colleagues look out for their safety and are always willing to help them with directions and advice.
“To all women who want to try doing any job that is traditionally filled by men, never feel that you can’t do it. You can,” Marina said.
“I think women can do anything better than men,” she added.
“And working as a female taxi driver is not a hard thing to do. Believe me, the passengers appreciate us more than male drivers. Just never stop trying and praying.”
Nyla’s family was surprised when she first decided to become a taxi driver, but she said her two children now fully support her. She works long shifts — 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. — every second day for 15 days each month.
“This is not a shameful job, but actually a noble job because I take people where they want to go and I help them reach their destinations,” Nyla said.
“Sometimes people think of this job as a lower profession,” she said. “People often ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ But to me, it’s not about what the job is. It’s about how you do it.”