A retiree in California teaches Afghan women how to drive

Bibifatima Akhundzada drove a white Chevy Spark through downtown Modesto, California, on a recent morning, practicing turning, braking and navigating intersections.

“Go, go, go,” his driving instructor said, as he slowed through an open intersection. “Do not stop. Do not stop.

His teacher was Gil Howard, an 82-year-old retired professor who has embarked on a second career as a driving instructor. And no ordinary instructor. In Modesto, California, she is the go-to teacher for women in Afghanistan, where driving is banned for virtually everyone.

In recent years, Mr. Howard has taught about 400 women in the Afghan community of 5,000 people in this part of California’s Central Valley. According to local tradition, thanks to “Mr. Gil,” as he is known in Modesto, is likely to have more Afghan women driving in and around the city of about 220,000 than in all of Afghanistan.

For many Americans, learning to drive is a rite of passage, a skill associated with freedom. For Afghan immigrants it can be a lifeline, especially in cities where distances are enormous and public transport is limited. So when Mr. Howard realized the difference that driving made to Afghan women, teaching them became a calling, the education being provided free of charge.

He has a waiting list of 50 people and a cell phone flooded with messages from people looking for a place. Through word of mouth, he recently received an inquiry from Missouri.

After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021 and established strict Islamic rule, they banned girls and women from schools and universities and banned them from driving.

But even before the fall of Kabul, most Afghan women rarely got behind the wheel. In conservative Afghan society, women are often kept at home unless accompanied by male family members.

In the United States, Afghan newcomers tend to preserve religious and cultural customs: Most women wear headscarves or hijabs. Many of those learning English prefer single-sex classes. The married women interviewed for this article agreed to be photographed only if their husbands agreed, and many let the men speak on their behalf.

Yet when it comes to leading, many Afghan women want to assimilate, even if you won’t hear them calling for gender equality or empowerment. Their main motivation? Go from point A to point B.

“My goal was to drive to help the family,” said Latifa Rahmatzada, 36, who got her license last September.

In Kabul, Ms. Rahmatzada, a mother of three boys, has been confined mostly to her extended family’s compound. Shopping was a man’s job. On rare outings she was escorted by her husband or a male relative.

Nearly 7,500 miles away in Modesto, she had no trouble convincing her husband, Hassibullah, to give her the green light to drive. “I supported her straight away. It was so stressful for me to do everything,” she said, and so she contacted Mr. Howard.

These days, while her husband works nine-hour shifts stocking shelves at Walmart, Ms. Rahmatzada often drives a 1992 Honda Accord – she had registered about 190,000 of them before it was donated to them – to their parents’ elementary school. children, at the supermarket and other places in the city.

About 200,000 Afghans live in the United States, concentrated in California, Texas and Virginia. About half of them arrived after the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, and more are on the way.

Coming from a country where street lanes, traffic lights, and traffic signs were virtually nonexistent, men driving in their homeland also faced a major adjustment to the rules of the road in the United States. Some do not feel qualified to teach their spouse.

“All Afghan women and men are happy with Mr. Gil’s lessons,” said Ms. Akhundzada’s husband, Sangar.

It became essential for Ms. Akhundzada, 22, to learn to drive after her husband began driving for Uber several days a week in San Francisco, 90 miles away.

“He needs to drive to bring groceries, bread and to go to the park with the children,” Mr Akhundzada said.

Ms. Akhundzada speaks little English, but driving tests in California are offered in 38 languages. She managed to pass the exam to obtain a learner’s permit in Dari, the most spoken language in Afghanistan.

She then waited several months before Mr Howard was able to fit it into his diary.

Mr. Howard, who stands calmly with his students, uses simple English and hand gestures to teach. But he also learned key Dari words, such as left, right, stop and go, to communicate with his students, and he used them as he walked through Modesto with Ms. Akhundzada.

“You’re learning pretty quickly,” he said, after she parallel parked. “Another lesson or two and you’re good to go.” Ms. Akhundzada responded with a chuckle.

Mr. Howard, who lives alone and has grown children, moved to Modesto in 2012 after decades of teaching operations research and mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

“I thought I would work on my garden and travel a little,” he said.

Moved by the images of migrants Drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean to the West, Mr. Howard decided to volunteer at World Relief, a nonprofit that helps settle refugees in the United States. Soon he was furnishing apartments for refugees, ferrying them to appointments and distributing second-hand bicycles.

Many of the refugees had fled Afghanistan after their lives were threatened for working alongside U.S. troops. Mr. Howard took a deep interest in some families.

Unexpectedly, his 65 years of driving experience came in handy.

In 2017, two Afghan sisters who had settled in the area with their mother and younger brother asked him if he could teach them to drive.

Mr. Howard started them in an empty parking lot.

“I had never seen a woman driving a car in Afghanistan,” recalled Morsal Amini, 24, one of the sisters. “It’s so difficult here if you don’t know how to drive.”

“D is for drive, R is for reverse, P is for park,” Ms. Amini recalled Mr. Howard telling her.

Once the sisters learned the basics, they began riding country roads and then city roads with their instructor, who Ms. Amini described as an “angel, comforting and patient.”

An accident almost occurred when a truck stopped in front of her – and Ms Amini did not react immediately. “Didn’t you see the brake lights?” Ms. Amini, now 24, remembers Mr. Howard asking her. She had no idea what they were her.

It took a few tries, but both women passed their road tests and purchased a car. “Our life changed completely,” Ms. Amini recalled.

So did Mr. Howard.

She soon received a steady stream of requests to teach other Afghan women. Many of them had taken an “English for Driving” course at Modesto Junior College. Initially, some were accompanied to lessons by chaperones, such as an older sibling or male relative, who sat in the back seat.

When the women were ready for the test drive, Mr. Howard usually accompanied them.

Demand for its protection soared after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021, ushering in a new wave of displaced Afghans in the United States, including Modesto.

To keep track of his growing list of students, he created a spreadsheet on his phone and prioritized those with study permits close to expiring.

Some days he teaches five consecutive classes, each lasting 90 minutes to two hours.

His only qualification, he said, is that his blood pressure has risen from all the oil and salt in the rich Afghan food he receives from students as a token of their appreciation.

On a recent Wednesday, Mr. Howard’s second pupil of the day was Zahra Ghausi, 18, whose road test was scheduled for the following week.

The college student was walking down a residential street when she approached school. “Watch your speed,” said Mr. Howard, his hand resting on the handbrake, just in case.

I told her to take the 99 Freeway. At 65 miles per hour, Ms. Ghausi sped past the almond trees lining the highway and changed lanes to pass a truck loaded with sheet metal. The speedometer read 70 miles per hour

“This is one I don’t have to say ‘go, go, go,’” Mr. Howard said. “She goes.”

Ms. Ghausi exited onto Taylor Road and headed to California State University in nearby Turlock.

“I love driving,” he said, walking onto campus. “I also love sports cars. I hope one day I’ll drive a race car.”

Mr. Howard then returned to Modesto. There was another student waiting for a lesson.