Is new ride-hailing firm for women, ‘Safr’, meaning journey in Urdu and Hindi, a lawsuit waiting to happen?

Syed Gilani, President and CEO of ‘Safr’ a ridesharing company that bills itself as women-friendly, has Masters degrees from Lahore University and Harvard. (Photo: LinkedIn)

A new ride-hailing app that caters to women by allowing both drivers and riders to choose their preferred gender of the person who will be sharing their vehicle is on its way to the District and – who knows? – maybe even the Supreme Court.

The new service, Safr, is built on the idea that women feel more comfortable driving or riding with other women. It rolled out about a year ago in Boston and looks a little like a retread of Chariot for Women, a Boston-based ride-hailing service that ran into flak over its gender-specific business model.

Safr talks a lot about “empowering” women in its pitch. Though Safr is hiring men too, its website and its boss make it clear that its reason to be is luring mostly female drivers and riders to the app with the promise that they won’t have to share a car with theP opposite sex if they don’t want to.

“We want to make sure that everything we are doing, especially on the ride-sharing side of it, is that we are giving equal opportunities to women to become a part of the gig economy in the transportation sector,” Safr chief executive Syed Gilani said Friday in an interview. “They can have equal opportunity to drive, and they can have equal opportunity to take a ride.”

Women make up only about 20 percent of the drivers on more-established platforms, Gilani said, but he believes Safr’s special features will change that.

Safr’s most notable feature allows users to express a preference for the gender of their driver or their passenger – a feature that has also shown up in the app of RideAustin, a nonprofit ride-hailing service in Texas, as “female driver mode.” If a woman using Safr wants a female driver and one is available, she’ll get a female driver. If not, the rider would have the option to cancel, Gilani said.

Asked about the legal implications of a public transportation business that allows people to select the gender of others in the vehicle, Gilani said it’s no different from a woman’s asking for a female obstetrician, a female trainer at a gym or a female security officer to conduct a pat-down at an airport checkpoint.

“We are a platform. We are not forcing anybody to select anybody. We are not saying you need to do that or you must do that,” Gilani said. “We are saying this is an option on our platform with our technology.”

In addition to allowing users to select a gender preference on the app, Safr says it has other features that make the service safer for women than Uber or Lyft. For one, Safr says, it’s doing a better job of vetting drivers – and making sure they stay vetted. Before a person can drive with Safr, the company conducts comprehensive background checks and requires face-to-face interviews with prospective drivers.

Safr also touts several in-transit security features. Before the ride begins, users receive a color code that has to match driver and rider. There’s also a 24/7 ride-tracking center and a panic button that allows users to send an alert to the service, the authorities or a personal contact if something goes wrong.

Gilani said Safr pays drivers better than Uber or Lyft, adding that this is possible because Safr charges smaller commissions and higher fares.

The pitch seems to be working. Safr already has signed up about 6,000 drivers in Massachusetts, about 95 percent of whom are women, Gilani said. He said 40 percent are first-time ride-hailing drivers.

“We want to make sure the woman can drive safely without any concern, and women can take a ride without any safety concerns,” Gilani said. “We are not discriminating against anybody. But we also understand there is a market segment that wants an option.”

Safr – whose imminent arrival was first reported by DCist – may be an improvement over Chariot for Women, and Gilani sounds sincere in his view that this service will help and empower women. But it still seems like a bad idea.

Gilani talks about empowering women and involving men in that empowerment somehow, but the entire thrust of Safr is about creating a gender-biased service of women providing public transportation mostly, if not solely, for other women. It’s couched in the softer language of preference, instead of exclusion – as if gender preferences weren’t the problem in the first place.

Besides entering into the especially charged field of gender politics these days, Safr also seems likely to stir controversy over issues touching on immigration and assimilation. That’s because the company’s target customer appears to be not only women but also women from certain cultures, such as Gilani’s native Pakistan, who feel uncomfortable when alone in settings with men.

“There is a huge population in the country that comes from Asian countries, South Asia, that wants to have this option and has asked for this option from us,” Gilani said.

Safr may be responding to a concern that’s out of line with reality. A 2016 Pew Research Center study reported that more women than men express concern about the safety of ride-hailing, but the same report also found no significant difference in usage across gender lines.

However admirable its goals, Safr seems to be operating on the assumption that the only way for people to be safe or comfortable is to be with their own kind. And asking for a lift from Point A to Point B on a public transportation service is not the same as getting a deep-tissue massage at the gym or requesting a same-sex security agent for a required pat-down at the airport.

There’s perhaps even a whiff of patronizing in the notion that the only way to ensure a woman’s safety is to keep her separate from men. And there’s doublespeak: Though Safr’s appeal rests on choosing a driver’s or rider’s sex, the company’s website insists Safr isn’t denying service to anyone based on gender.

Ride-hailing and mass transit – or just about any public space in society, when you get right down to it – could be made safer for women. But the way to do that is not by segregating women.



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