Driving Me Crazy: The BBC’s Muslim Driving School

The BBC is airing a six-episode television series, called Muslim Driving School, about Muslim women who are learning to drive. The show purports to not only follow these women as they learn, but to provide an insight into their inner lives.

Taslima. Image via BBC website.

Muslim Driving School is billed as being about British Muslim women, but from the introduction onward, a narrower focus is introduced–a focus on mostly Asian Muslim women, from what are described as “traditional” Muslim communities, living in northern mill towns such as Bradford and Burnley. The publicity describes the show as an “intimate and revelatory insight” into the lives of the women featured. Throughout the show there is an unambiguous depiction of the women and their lives from the standpoint of an outsider, represented for the consumption of other outsiders. The minor details of their lives are held up as revelation, while a distanced appraisal of an ostensibly alien culture is supposedly intimacy.

The terms “Asian” and “Muslim” are used interchangeably throughout the program. Asian women’s husbands make choices for them, Muslim women do not speak to men who are not part of their mahram – generalizations are used to paint the group as a whole in broad brushstrokes, while a series of exceptions to the rule are presented. At one point an imam is brought in to tell us that he thinks that Muslim women should have the right to drive and the right to work, as though these are revolutionary concepts for Muslim women or there aren’t any number of religious scholars, both today and throughout history, who haven’t agreed with these concepts. These particular women are shown as being part of a vanguard of change, a change catalyzed by the influence of British society.

Driving is explicitly presented as being about more than pleasure or transportation, as the narration gushes about the “revving engines” of “revolution” sounding across the country. In relation to Muslim women, it seems, driving should be perceived differently – not a “pleasure pursuit,” but a route to social and economic independence, something that is shown as being rare or absent in the past.Driving is seen to be not only a freedom, but a symbol of and a model for wider freedoms being attained by Muslim women, a particular generation of Muslim women, and a particular generation of immigrants.

Taslima (pictured above left), a 58-year-old grandmother who came to Britain from Pakistan to be married at 13 is learning to drive in order to be able to provide transportation for her ill husband–after he had previously told her that there was no need for her to learn to drive when he was able. Zaida, a driving instructor who runs a school with her husband, pushed past her family’s objections and learned to drive as teenager, turning her passion into a career, specializing in teaching women to drive, but she explains her student Taslima’s lack of confidence on the road as being a sympton of a wider lack of assertiveness and inability to make firm decisions, not only in Taslima herself, but in Asian women as a whole. She insists that her children will have the ability to make choices she wasn’t able to.



Samia is an effusive eighteen-year-old who has recently gotten out of a failed arranged marriage in Pakistan and now wishes to have her own car. Aysha (nee Stacey, pictured right) stands alone as an example of British culture being affected by (a) Muslim culture. She’s moved from a life of “drink and drugs” to embracing religion and becoming a part of the family of Korsa, her driving instructor. The show is markedly ambivalent to Aysha’s choices, in comparison to the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the other women who are shown to be becoming more anglicized, at one point asking if she wears the niqab in order to crush “Stacey,” her previous self, and highlighting her estrangement from her mother.

Subsequently, Muslim Driving School represents a narrative of Muslim women gaining forward momentum–the evolution of a feminist sensibility shaped by the admixture of an intrinsically “traditional” Muslim culture and an apparently liberal British culture. But ultimately, the focus on driving as a mechanism for change is a stretch.

Muslim Driving School is available to watch for U.K. residents on the BBC iPlayer here and here. The third episode will be airing on BBC 2 at 22.00 on Tuesday.

  • Nimra

    i am new to this website but liked your critique analysis on this programme but what else do you or can we do to change protrayls in the programme?
    do you as a group contact, lobby, complain to BBC or what is agenda or campaign with a group like yours

  • http://rumoured.wordpress.com Sumera

    I really don’t like how the focus of the problem are these women who supposedly want to “break free” from the “authoritarian control” their men supposedly have over them, and become “independent” by learning how to drive.

    The only one who is perhaps “real” is Humera, there isn’t much sugar and syrup they can drip her story in and so they dont bother. The rest however are a different story.

    With regards to the women feeling nervous and not confident – usually when you are learning drive its normal to be apprehensive! And even moreso since the car isn’t yours, its a new experience and you want to do well. What has being Muslim or Asian specifically got to do with that, I have no idea.

  • http://twitter.com/asiahkelley Asiah

    Mashallah good analysis.

    I’m watching the third episode now. I have seen some of the other programs done by BBC and British networks on British Muslims, and I have liked them for the most part. But this one does seem to have an agenda. I mean even the whole topic? Everyone knows women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. But the fact is, it is such a little issue. I remember when that White House Rep went there and started talking to the women about driving and they chewed her out. She got owned by ladies in full niqaab and abaya.

    But I do appreciate some of the stories, especially that of the girl taken to Pakistan to be married at 16, ending in divorce. Or that of Taslima, who is so spunky! Or even Aysha’s brave recovery from a life that was destroying her. But BBC has portrayed these brave and strong women as being victims of an oppressive religion which they are now just breaking free from. Ha! In the case of Aysha especially it is the other way around.

    And while I feel it is important for women to drive, really, if their family is going to drive them everywhere, what is the point? I know so many people in major cities who never learn to drive because they can take public transport. How is that different?

    And sure in Pakistan it is a different society. But there are tons of women who drive there and who are educated and do their own thing. It’s not a monolith!

    And I love how you picked up on the series using the term Asian as interchangeable with Muslim.

    I hope we never get to this state in the US. A program like this could never be made here. Sure there are women I have known who came here not knowing how to drive, but they learned pretty quick because otherwise their families would starve.


    Great coverage tho MMW.


  • Karin

    Couldn’t stand watching more than a few minutes myself, it looked like a fairly typical hum-drum human insterest documentary to me – no real depth or message and stereotypes are unfortunately abound in this genre whatever the topic is.

    You can complain directly to the BBC, for more detail see http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/homepage/. Another route is to contact Ofcom, if you believe the program breaks the UK broadcasting code regulations under ‘harm and offence’, see http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consumer/2010/01/audience-complaints/, just be aware that such complaints are very rarely successful.

  • Hussain

    I am not sure what your objection is to Asian women being protrayed in the programme. If you do not object why do you think it is worth mentioning? It is a fact that the majority of British Muslims are South Asian. And the strongest Muslim demograpic is in the North of England and is South Asian?
    Do you resent that? I am interested in whether you address the very strong racism in Arab culture against South Asians (Muslim or not). There are undertones of that in your article. Where does that racial dynamic fit into your de-constructive piece. You do realize that though you are accusing the BBC of being somewhat cornered by the ethincity of the programme makers (presumably white) your piece is likewise contextualized and frankly offensive to me in that sense.
    I enjoyed the program. The women said what was on their mind, so what if it doesn’t fit with what you think they should say.

  • Ayaan Hassan

    Hussain, I’m neither Arab nor Asian, and I do understand the demographics of British Muslims, but as a non-Asian British Muslim, I find the representation of all British Muslims as Asians personally damaging.

  • http://afzalschoolofmotoring Afzal

    I think the programme was very popular among some of the asian coomunity. I have had many phone calls from asian ladies asking for KKorsa Bibi’s contact number to book driving lessons. Perhaps you could publish her detail for the benefit of these people.