Zainab Patanwala is an Ajman-based driving instructor working for Al Noor Driving Institute. She started training drivers as early as 2000 and has come to find great satisfaction in her work. In this interview, we ask Zainab about her experience in this profession and her life on the road.
- When you think about cars, what emotions come to the fore?Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with driving cars. I used to really look forward to the long drives with my family, pleading with my dad to let me sit behind the wheel with him, just to get a feel of driving first hand. In my childhood days, I was a hardcore fan of racing video games, which fuelled my fascination and made me yearn even more to learn driving.
- What motivated you to become a driving instructor?
I would give credit to my driving instructor for sparking my interest and motivating me to become an instructor, as she found my driving skills to be above par and suggested that I should consider taking it up as a profession.
Initially, I was in two minds, but nevertheless, I threw my hat into the ring thinking, why not?
With time, it became even more meaningful as the importance of this profession began to become more clear to me.
My interest in driving motivated me to learn more about safe driving at the same time. Today, I feel privileged, not just because I am a lady behind the wheel, but also because I have an opportunity to put many women behind the wheel and help them become responsible drivers.
- You were one of the youngest to get a license as an instructor. How did that feel? What stands out from the advice your instructors gave you back then?
It was a feeling of excitement coupled with nervousness. Excitement because I was a step closer to a personal achievement. Nervousness because I felt I was about to shoulder an important responsibility at a tender age.
I remember after passing the instructor’s test, one of the examiners checked my driving license and was a little bewildered to see that I was just 19 years old. I still cherish what he said to me then, ‘We need more instructors like you to step up and take on this role.’
- What were the challenges you faced whilst pursuing this profession?
There were two major challenges in my view that made me feel a little vulnerable.Firstly, this being an uncommon profession, I was continuously advised that I am qualified enough to pursue a better profession than this. Hence, peer pressure was something weighing heavily on me.Secondly, the age factor. In the UAE, it takes a minimum of 2 years of driving experience to pursue instructing as a profession. Hence, at 19 years of age, I was put in an awkward position where I had to get my students to trust me and believe that I was perfectly capable of teaching.
- What are your thoughts on the advent of self-driving cars?
Although I feel self-driving cars may have the highest level of Artificial Intelligence, yet they could never substitute what I call the 6th sense of driving i.e. instinct.
During critical times on the road, the difference between life and death almost always comes down to human presence of mind, reflexes and split second reactions. I doubt that self driving cars can ever possess that urge to protect loved ones and preserve one’s self from harm. At the end of the day it is artificial. I just feel that the complexity of human intelligence is more intelligent.
- How supportive has your community been?
My community has always been my backbone throughout my journey.
I still remember in my early years when the community leader Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin was visiting Dubai and I got a chance to get an audience with him. There were skeptics around me who thought that Syedna would not permit me to continue this profession.
I apprised him about my career choice and to my surprise, Syedna expressed a keen interest in my story and went on to enquire further about the profession. He then gave his consent and blessing to me at the end. That was the biggest morale booster for me.
Later on, there was a time when due to family responsibilities, I had to put my career on hold. It was a bad phase and I was in a bad state. I had lost my confidence and purpose. However, my fellow community members reminded me of my achievements and helped me get back behind the wheel. Their support has been an indispensable part of my journey.
- From your own experiences, can you share how women might find the drive to pursue the careers of their choice.
As a woman, you will come across many challenges and there will be times when you will hit a roadblock. However, it’s important to trust your instincts and keep doing what you believe in, because that is what will eventually bring you success in the end.
Personally, I had developed a set of principles early on, which acted as my GPS and helped me navigate my career.1. Identifying myself – I took pride in my attire i.e. hijab (rida)
2. Helping unconditionally – It gives me great satisfaction to extend a helping hand to others with my knowledge and experience.
3. Sincerity – in terms of work, life, children, I make it a point to be sincere in all my roles.
- What are your top tips for car drivers around the world?
‘Stay calm on the wheel – As a driver, you are not just responsible for your car’s safety but also for the safety of other drivers.
‘We don’t pay to use our indicators’’ – Use them, they won’t cost you a dime.
‘Better late than never’- Speeding is meant for racing tracks, not public roads
After a few gap years and with almost 12 years of experience under her belt, Zainab has made a name for herself as a methodical and reliable driving instructor.