Sonia Marcella Martinez’s profile picture on Uber, where she's a driver, shows a grinning 32-year-old woman wearing big sunglasses and a headscarf. Martinez has been working as a part-time driver in Denver for the past five months, and has been loving the job (and the extra income it brings in addition to her full-time job as a pharmacy technician). That is, until a racist online troll tried to get her fired for being a Muslim. It all started with a Facebook group, “Uber Woman’s Driving Network” which Martinez joined to connect with other women drivers. The group of around 500 members compares tips and tricks on the business; it was there that Martinez encountered Rene Hunter. Hunter, a registered Uber driver-partner (and occasional passenger) herself, reportedly asked Martinez if she’s allowed to drive in the U.S. — since Muslim women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Hunter, who is from North Carolina, also asked Martinez if she wears a headscarf while she drives. When Martinez responded that she does wear hijab while driving, Hunter immediately blocked Martinez on Facebook. That’s when things got ugly. Hunter sent a scathing private Facebook message to Leticia Alcala, an admin for the unofficial Uber driver’s group, expressing her outrage at the very existence of Muslim women drivers — and spouting some misinformed Islamophobia. It read: I’m totally offended that UBER would allow a Muslim to drive and that is she allowed to wear a berka when doing so. If I ordered a UBER and she pulled up I would cancel immediately. Her Husband could very well be the enemy within. I will be sending in a formal complaint. Furthermore if you post this or share with anyone I will defiantly take action.
Alcala ignored Hunter's last line and shared a screenshot of the message in the group, before banning Hunter. “I was absolutely appalled,” Alcala told us. “I’ve never experienced something like this before.” Martinez then shared Hunter’s message on her own Facebook page as well as another Facebook group she belongs to called “Muslims Are Not Terrorists.” And that's when the tides turned, igniting a firestorm of internet outrage against Hunter. Within the next few days, the post went viral on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr and Lipstick Alley, sparking anger among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Not only did Martinez’s post get over 25,000 comments on Facebook alone, but commenters also took real-time action. They shared Hunter’s contact information and the personal Facebook messages they sent her. One woman even sent complaints to Hunter’s employer, a real estate company in North Carolina — a move that some thought went a little too far. “I asked them to immediately institute cultural sensitivity training for the entire organization. I have no wishes to get Rene fired, but wish to see her and everyone else in the company properly trained,” said Tracy Doudon in an email. Hunter has since disappeared from the group, deleted her social media accounts, and was banned from Uber. "Encouraging a mutually respectful and positive experience for both riders and drivers is very important to us," an Uber spokesperson told us. "This individual [Rene Hunter] no longer has access to the platform." Hunter did not return emails and phone calls requesting comment. Services such as Uber have given women a way to break into the traditionally male-dominated driving industry. Uber couldn't give us exact numbers, but a spokesperson said that in 2014, the company estimated that 14% of its drivers were female. That's not a huge number, but it's massive compared to the number of women who are currently driving yellow cabs in NYC (around 2% of taxi drivers). Uber has also had its problems — earlier this year, UN Women quickly pulled out of a planned collaboration with the service when a string of sexual assault allegations against male drivers surfaced. But Martinez, for her part, says that while she was dismayed by the racist message, her experience with Uber has been great overall. “I joined that group to connect with other woman drivers, so we can discuss issues and strategies, so I can become a better driver. I was not at all prepared to encounter a woman who would have a problem with me being Muslim and wearing a headscarf while I drive,” Martinez told us. “I've been working as a driver for five months," she continued, "and none of my passengers or people I’ve encountered online have complained... Passengers have asked me, out of curiosity, how I am able to drive if I am Muslim, and why I wear a headscarf, but everyone has always been very kind and respectful to me."