Last week, Malaysians pondered a question: is a Muslim female takes a ride-sharing service with a male driver, does that constitute khalwat?
Khalwat means close proximity between a male and female who are not forbidden by blood ties from marrying. Such situations are forbidden and are often the subject of enforcement raids by Malaysian religious authorities.
The Federal Territories’ Mufti office took on the question which was posed to them. Eventually, the mufti office opined that such an arrangement does not constitute khalwat so long as certain limitations are observed.
In reality, though, female ride-sharing users both in Malaysia and around the world have a more pressing concern: their personal safety when taking a car ride with strangers or taking public transportation.
Since ride-sharing took the world by storm years ago, the issue of safety has been a critical point of debate. In essence, both driver and passenger are vulnerable to malicious intent from each other, but the risk is arguably skewed to being higher for the passenger side.
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This is especially true for female users in areas where the risk to their wellbeing is already higher than most other places.
Take, for instance, the Indian rape case for which an Uber driver was convicted in November 2015 and sentenced to life in prison. Just a month prior, an Uber driver in in Australia was charged for raping a British tourist — he was found guilty last month.
Over in the United States, at least one ride-sharing driver was charged with multiple counts of rape, suggesting that the platform could be open to systematic criminal abuse.
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The rise of female-only ride-sharing services is a direct response to the issue. One example is Safr, launched in the United States last year and boasts that it is “built for and powered by women”. There is also See Jane Go, rolled out late last year.
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Malaysia even saw a local version in Riding Pink, which was launched in October 2016. Such players essentially uses female drivers exclusively and targets the female ridership demographic that is conscious of their safety.
In turn, their emergence signals the serious weight carried by the perceived inadequacy among the ride-sharing service providers Uber and Grab when it comes to measures to ensure female riders’ safety.
According to a Ride-Sharing Research Report by Shares Post Inc. in late 2016, 12% of respondents who have used ride-sharing services said concerns over poor track record of drivers is their least favourite thing about the service.
The corresponding percentage among respondents who have not used ride-sharing before is about 16%. The survey sampled 5,475 respondents.
Clearly the concern affects a significant proportion of potential ride-sharing users. So long as the perception remains, there will be female riders unconvinced that they can ride safely, opening up room for female-centric ride-sharing competitors to carve out their niches.
And those female-centric competitors are likely to remain favoured by these riders until the bigger ride-sharing companies find a way to address the problem for once and for all.
An interesting case study for a potential solution, however, may have been staring the likes of Uber in the windscreen all this while.
Consider Saudi Arabia, where at least 80% of its 130,000 riders are reportedly women. The high proportion sounds counter-intuitive considering the social environment of Saudi Arabia, where interaction between unrelated women and men are restricted.
To be fair, the fact that Saudi women are not allowed to drive is also a significant factor, as would be a relative lack of other public transportation means — the mobility from ride-sharing services would be greatly liberating, hence its popularity.
That said, news reports indicate that women riders there feel very safe with Uber and its local alternatives, which contrasts sharply with the apparent situation elsewhere in the world.
The often cited security bulwark among riders in Saudi Arabia is the available information on the driver; identity, car plate number and contact information that can be shared with family members in case a ride turns dangerous. This is no different from Uber’s features elsewhere in the world.
What seems to enhance the safety effects, though, is the harsh laws in Saudi Arabia itself when it comes to sexual offenders: convicted sexual offenders are punishable by death, with growing talk in recent years that rapists should be castrated.