On July 28, just before 3 a.m., Leila Nduka got into an Uber in downtown Toronto. It was an Uber pool, but after about 20 minutes of driving around and looking for the other passenger, Nduka’s driver cancelled the pickup. She thought he was taking her home, but the GPS kept rerouting and it was making her nervous. The driver refused to take her to her location before picking up another passenger because he said that would earn him more money.
“He was going to hold me in his car until he got someone else,” she told VICE News in an interview.
What followed was a frightening episode for Nduka, 22, who says the driver began grabbing her charger and unplugging it from her phone, which was running out of batteries. Nduka said he “aggressively” grabbed her hand to try and take her phone away, demanding she tell him who she was speaking with.
“It seemed like he didn't want me to contact anyone,” she said. During the scuffle Nduka said he left marks on her hand.
“At this point I'm scared and outraged that not only did this man put his hands on me but he's supposed to be my safe point from downtown to my house in Scarborough,” said Nduka, who eventually convinced the driver to let her out when she saw a police cruiser.
The police officer wasn't of much help, and she ended up taking a cab home. Shaken, and determined to warn others, Nduka took matters into her own hands, posting the driver’s face and name to Twitter and tagging Uber’s Twitter account, too.
The post took off, as people she didn’t know started spreading it around their networks. In the end, her experience was shared almost 500 times.
Uber contacted Nduka days later to let her know the driver was suspended. They refused to tell her if he'd been fired, citing a privacy agreement between the company and the driver.
But the young woman’s experience highlights a byproduct of the #MeToo and #TimesUp era — the trend of women outing alleged attackers, and the circle of virtual support that amplifies the names and faces of those exposed. Some of that scrutiny has zeroed in on the safety of women on Uber and other ride-sharing apps. The online community has made it easier for women to expose alleged abusers because they don't feel alone — and they are finding people will support them, even if they don’t know them.
“If it is not another woman, it will be me, who, on a statistic and in general is just another woman. Hence, I feel morally inclined to warn other women,” said Toronto artist and feminist Susan Khan, who considers herself part of a “sisterhood” that looks out for one another.
As an active social media user, Khan regularly shares and reposts sensitive content that affect women in her community — including but not limited to, faces and names of men that women around her have accused of assault. She doesn’t always know the women, but she believes them. She feels that “there should be a shared awareness.”
“The reason I reacted is because too many assault stories get swept under the mat. Women are always shamed and ostracized if they are victims of sexual assault,” Khan said in an email.
"The reason I reacted is because too many assault stories get swept under the mat."
According to ‘Who’s Driving You?’ a public awareness campaign that gatherers reports involving Uber and Lyft, there have been 395 alleged sexual assaults and 102 alleged assaults attributed to Uber and Lyft drivers worldwide — a tally that campaigners say is “likely just the tip of the iceberg.” A recent CNN investigation showed that 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. were accused of sexual assault and abuse over the past four years.
The Australian-based Women Against Uber (W.A.U.) are calling on people to delete Uber and other ride-sharing apps, adding fuel to the already popular #DeleteUber campaign because, according to them, the rideshare company “does not appropriately conduct security checks on their drivers, does not comply to regulated rideshare vehicle safety guidelines and discriminates against those with disabilities and continues to discriminate against women.”
The women who formed the group say the company does little to ensure the safety of vulnerable members of the community, which is why a large number of women “often don’t feel safe when travelling by themselves.” They say that lack of respect extends to women who work at the rideshare company. Uber was reportedly under federal investigation for paying their female employees 18 percent less than men in the same occupation.
“We’re not saying that sexual and physical assault is exclusive to Uber and other rideshare apps, however they do not have methods in place to safeguard those if the situation does arise and the victim can have justice,” representatives of W.A.U. told VICE News. They applauded women who took matters into their own hands by exposing alleged abusers.
Uber is known for protecting itself through its fine print. It argued in court in March that when riders signed up for the service, they agreed to settle disputes in private arbitration away from courts and the public, according to the Guardian — a move that critics said left victims feeling voiceless and other women unaware of an abuser walking the streets. However in May, the company announced it will no longer require sexual assault victims to sign confidentiality agreements and that the arbitration process was no longer mandatory.
“The police and government officials, have shown time and time again that they are helpless when it comes to cases of Uber rape, sexual assault and discrimination, not having evidence of these accounts without security and voice recordings of the incidents,” W.A.U said. “We are here to listen to these heartbreaking stories and ensure that these Uber victims voices are heard.”
For Nduka, exposing her driver was imperative to getting Uber’s attention about her case and warning other women of the dangers of hopping into a car with a stranger.
She provided a statement to the officer she flagged down on the street, who told her she didn’t sustain any real or serious injuries but would note it and that she should go home. She ended up taking a taxi back to Scarborough after the Uber driver and the cop left.
Uber told VICE News they have a support team “who not only monitors the feedback of trips from riders and drivers, but also monitors social media platforms.”
According to the company, if a situation or question is posted on social media, they will reach out directly to gather more information from the alleged victim, like in Nduka’s case. Also, they said they would “not hesitate to remove someone's access” while an investigation is going on.
Women who work for Uber are also trying to warn other women about potential abuse. An Uber driver from Pennsylvania who goes by Lexi, and who did not want to be further identified, says other female drivers make each other aware of “abusive passengers” too. However, they do not post the perpetrators faces online for fear of being sued and potentially losing their job at Uber.
Safr, a ride sharing service in Boston, is one company that encourages women to speak out. It was “built with the needs of women in mind,” both in terms of safety and in terms of livelihood. Its drivers are “personally” vetted and undergo comprehensive background checks.
“The traditional rideshare economy has failed on its promise of equal participation and equal benefit for all,” said Syed Zain Gilani, CEO of Safr. “This is due to serious safety concerns for both women drivers and riders. Women not only make less than 20 percent of the rideshare driver population but also work less hours due to safety concerns.”
"If a matter goes to court, any information that has been posted online could become part of the proceedings.”
As for the decision to spread the faces of alleged abusers with little information to go on, Toronto Police Services said there is nothing illegal about what these women are doing. However, that does not mean there aren't risks associated to publicly outing an alleged abuser online.
“Someone could be held liable in civil court for such a posting or they could be personally at risk if there is a response from the person they posted about,” Meaghan Gray from Toronto Police Services said.
Toronto Police say it’s “important to be aware that if a matter goes to court, any information that has been posted online could become part of the proceedings.”
As far as intervening goes, Gray said there's nothing police can do about allegations posted online. But, if a complaint was brought forward by someone and if it becomes part of an investigation, then something can be done.
Nduka said she has received backlash online since she shared her experience, but she wouldn't change a thing and would “rather have the public aware than anything”
“I thought it was important to speak publicly because usually women don’t,” she said. “If these are the type of people bringing us home we’re in danger.”
Artwork by Victoria Pandeirada