Meet Israel's Only Female Muslim Bus Driver

Suhaila Fadila says she always liked to drive. 'I’m a devout Muslim, but I didn't need permission from anyone in order to accept the job.'

Ofer Vaknin

Even in 2015 Israel, female bus drivers are a rare sight – not to mention female Arab bus drivers. And yet there is one: Suhaila Fadila, 44, a mother of four, who has been driving for the past three years.

A resident of the town of Tira in the Galilee Triangle, Fadila is a devout Muslim who wears a hijab, makes sure to dress modestly and drives a Metropoline bus in Kfar Sava. The Metropoline company provides service in an area including Be'er Sheva and Tel Aviv, along with other destinations in the southern and central parts of the country.

“I’m very familiar with that city from the days when I worked with my husband in his driving school,” she says. “And Metropoline doesn’t operate in Tira.”

How did you become a public transportation driver, of all things?

Fadila: “I’ve always liked to drive, and when my husband decided to get a bus driver’s license I asked – Why not me?”

Together with her husband Fadila passed the tests and began a long training period that included both theoretical and practical aspects of the profession; her husband’s presence enabling her to continue to study, a lone woman among men. Her husband went on to teach driving, and meanwhile Fadila was hired as a rank-and-file driver – five days a week, seven hours a day.

“They are very willing to compromise,” says Fadila of her employers. “I can’t work on Fridays, so they didn’t insist, and when it comes to clothing they’re meticulous only about the colors – black and purple. So my clothes are black, and my hijab is purple.” While Metropoline provides clothing for men and for other women drivers, she buys her own in order to meet the demands of her religion, usually sporting an elegant black skirt over black pants.

Fadila's job is even more surprising in light of Central Bureau of Statistics data showing that the vast majority of Muslim women in Israel do not work at all. In 2012, the employment rate among Muslims who were at least 15 years old was 44.5 percent: 65.2 percent among men and a mere 23.7 percent among women. The latter figure was significantly lower than that relating to working Jewish (64.3 percent), Christian (48.1 percent) and Druze (36.7 percent) women.

New dream

During the three years Fadila has been working for Metropoline, she has become well integrated in the work force; she even won a cake-baking contest held in honor of the Shavuot holiday once.

“To this day they ask me to bring ‘that’ cake,” she says. “Like driving, food is also a hobby.”

To arrive at work on time, at precisely 6:45 A.M., Fadila rises every morning at 5 A.M., prays, gets organized and leaves the house at 6. Her husband wakes up their 14-year-old son (their three other sons are already adults and have moved out) and sends him off to school.

Fadila explains that everyone in her surroundings accepts the fact that she is working as a bus driver, and adds that she was not required to consult any religious authority before starting out.

“I’m a devout Muslim, but I didn’t need permission from anyone in order to accept the job,” she notes. “I know exactly what’s permitted and what’s forbidden – for example, I would not get into a cab where there are only men. That’s why I drive to work in my own car. I also know that there’s no prohibition against driving a bus.”

In a country where relations between Jews and Arabs are often tense, Fadila is a ray of light. To date she reports that she encountered reactions stemming from her external appearance on only two occasions: once when two female soldiers stood at the door to the bus and one said to the other: “You’re not boarding this one.”

“It happens rarely,” she adds, “and I only smile and continue on my way. Basically there’s no problem with the passengers, some of whom are regulars, and some incidental. We all live together.”

During the trip around Kfar Sava it turns out that the passengers really don’t seem to react to the driver who looks so different from her colleagues: “She’s 100 percent, even 1,000 percent – there’s nothing to be afraid of,” says one of the regular riders, an elderly man from Sde Warburg.

Metropoline CEO Ilan Karni is also pleased by her work: “Suhaila is an example of a professional driver with a service orientation and a big commitment to her passengers."

Fadila sees herself as a model not only for young women from Arab society, but for other drivers as well. “We drivers in Israel lack a culture of respect for one another,” she says. “Everyone pushes, cuts in, isn’t careful. We have to live in peace on the road too.”

Although Fadila likes her job, she has already set her sights on another dream: “I told my husband that I want to be a train conductor. I believe that will happen too.”

Apparently, Fadila will soon lose her unique status: The finance and transportation ministries will soon be jointly offering a course to teach some 30 Arab women how to drive a bus, in light of the overall shortage of drivers in the country. The pilot program is being conducted by Nateev Express, a transportation company owned by the Afifi family, and they are now recruiting participants. The theoretical and practical training will last for six months, and the participants will receive a stipend of 1,500 shekels ($377) per month.