Sevim Kaya (Credit: Umut Akar)

Turkey’s southern Adana province is famous for delicious kebabs, hot summer weather, and its jittery people – especially when they’re in traffic. It’s hard to drive in this city: Adana’s mostly male drivers are impatient, merciless to the inexperienced and a little bit, well, lawless.  

Yet there are some women who face the city’s traffic chaos for a living. One of these is Sevim Kaya, who drives city buses for the Adana Metropolitan Municipality. 

A bus driver of 16 years, 58-year-old Kaya is known to her passengers and colleagues as “Welcome Sevim” for her diligent greeting of everyone who boards her bus. Kaya began her career behind the wheel when she was forced to find employment after ending a 20-year-long marriage. 

At first, Kaya tells Inside Turkey, her family objected to her new profession on the grounds that it was a “man’s job”. She says she stuck it out partly because she wanted to become an inspiration to other women. 

“As women, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. We need to be able to stand on our own feet,” Kaya says. 

Çınar Kefer, an executive supervisor for Adana Metropolitan Municipality’s Transportation Department for the past two decades, tells Inside Turkey that the first two female drivers in the city were hired in 1998. The then-mayor, Aytaç Durak, followed this with a wider recruitment drive for women. 

“The municipality was supposed to hire drivers for the city buses, and he just came up with the idea out of nowhere,” Kefer says. “[The mayor] said that we should advertise the vacancies exclusively for women, which he said would draw fewer applications and include women in the profession. We were clearly surprised, and a little nervous to be honest.”

The response exceeded expectations, Kefer says. At its peak, around a quarter of Adana’s 464 bus drivers were women. This has now fallen slightly to 103, after recent retirement legislation led some women to leave the job.

Over time, women drivers have broken down prejudice, Kefer says. 

“They’re all excellent drivers. We’re pleased and so are the passengers. I could even say that our female drivers hang onto their jobs for longer than our male drivers,” he says, adding that there are some hiccups. “Sometimes they’re subject to sexist attacks. I wish they weren’t, but the industry’s a male one.”

Kaya says her father and her two sons – who she raised on her own – all objected at first to her working as a bus driver. When she started work, she found that her presence behind the wheel was surprising to her male colleagues as well. 

“They were thrown off at first but they got used to it over time, they saw that we were good, and not so different professionally from male drivers, and they got used to us,” Kaya says, adding that she had some extraordinary interactions with male colleagues in her early days.

“I started working, but I was also raising my kids and looking after the house. One day, I remember I was exhausted. I got off the bus and said ‘I’m exhausted,’ and my male coworker jumps in: ‘You’re exhausted so easily, look, it’s not working out for you.’ 

“I was so offended! I told him: ‘You don’t have laundry to wash or to iron, or dinner to cook when you get home. You don’t have to clean before you leave home in the morning either. You’re probably going to sit back, stretch your legs out and sip tea when you get home. But I’m going to keep working when I get home…’ 

“He was so embarrassed when I said that. He apologised, and he never put on that attitude again,” Kaya says. 

Filiz Yıldız

Filiz Yıldız, a gender equality researcher and the chair of the journalism department at Adana’s Çukurova University, tells Inside Turkey that women’s financial independence is crucial, adding that seemingly “ordinary and routine” domestic labour is often not compensated.

“It’s crucial for women’s existence to participate in the economy,” Yıldız says. “It could be any kind of job – at home or outside. It could even be a job that gender norms would assign to men, like an auto mechanic or a bus driver. A woman should be able to live for herself and to fulfil her purpose.”

Kaya says she married at 19 and abandoned her studies, only realising after having children  that she needed to “improve” herself, which led her to obtain her high school diploma and end her 20-year-long marriage. This also meant that she had to abandon a perfectly comfortable life, she says. 

“Up until that day I had never thought of life’s struggles, that’s what I realised. I needed to stand on my own two feet and that was hard. I was 40 when I got a divorce. My dad told me back then, ‘Come now daughter, you’re now under my wings, come take your place in my home.’ 

Sevim Kaya (Credit: Umut Akar)

“I told him no. If I was the type of person who could stomach that, I wouldn’t have left behind a home of 20 years. I needed to live my own life, on my own terms,” Kaya says.

Before driving buses, Kaya worked as a secretary and a baker. She had to take the last spot for a driving test in Mersin, an hour’s drive from Adana, before she could apply to the municipality’s job listing. 

“I needed to somehow get this job,” she says. 

Kaya’s “Welcome Sevim” nickname stemmed from an encounter with a young girl who rode on her bus, chatting with her the whole route and thanking her for a lovely trip when she got off. 

“When I heard that girl say that, so happy, it made me incredibly happy as well. After that day, I told every single passenger who boarded the bus, ‘Welcome.’ Passengers were really surprised to hear it at the beginning, but now they know me and they’re used to me. You can’t come on board my bus without so much as a simple ‘Hello,’” Kaya says. 

On a short bus journey with Kaya, Inside Turkey observed most passengers greeting her and asking her how she was doing.  One even offered Kaya some börek that they had saved just for her. 

“I lived in Germany for a while, there are women there who’ve been drivers for years,” she says. “Our country is not quite there yet, but we will achieve this too. It’s us women who will fight for this.”