Female taxi drivers challenge traditional stereotypes

Enas Hammam enters the Instant Rentals headquarters behind the US Embassy in Garden City flushed and breathless, but smiling. Wearing casual black pants, gray shirt, colorful veil and sunglasses, she is glad to share her experiences, practice her English and take a break from Cairo’s gridlocked traffic.

For more than a year, Enas has been one of six female taxi drivers working at the Cairo City Cab Company.

Driving a taxi remains a male-dominated occupation, especially in Cairo, where traffic law bans women from driving cabs after 7:00 PM. But thanks to women like Enas, a community of female taxi drivers is becoming a reality.

“I have always loved driving,” says Enas. “I was looking for a job when I came across an advertisement in a newspaper saying that a company was hiring female taxi drivers–so I decided to apply.”

Now she is a self-confident, 36-year-old mother of two teenage children who works with enthusiasm from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM.

“I think women can do what men can do. We should think about the service we get, not who does it,” she says. “For this reason, I’ve urged other women to apply for the job–and I heard that two women did.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been some difficulties, as Emad Abdel Rahman, deputy general manager of the cab company, explains.

“My idea of having women as taxi drivers stemmed from demand,” he says. “When we opened the company we received many calls from mothers, wives, or men whose daughters or wives needed a taxi for long rides, expressly asking for female drivers.”

“As a businessman, if someone asks for a service, I provide it,” adds Abdel Rahman.

After waiting for a government license for two years, a group of businessmen recently established three new taxi companies: Cairo Cab, City Cab, and Cairo International Cab. Each company started out with only 15 taxis, but they have since merged into a single company called Instant Rentals.

The new taxis came as part of a local government project to modernize the taxis on the streets of Cairo. While people had long been accustomed to taking the old black and white cabs, the new taxis not only differ in color–they’re yellow–but are also owned by the company and not the driver. They are also modern, air-conditioned, and–most importantly, perhaps–come equipped with a digital meter.

But it’s the call center that really differentiates Cairo’s yellow taxis from their black and white counterparts. For the first time, customers are able to hail taxis by dialing 16516, or can find them at designated taxi stations–in addition to the traditional method of simply flagging them down. City Taxi’s meters, however, start from LE3.50, as opposed to the white and black cabs’ initial fare of LE2.50.

Drivers, both male and female, are required to hold at least a high school diploma, have a good command of English, prove they are in good health, and pass an admittance test. The company provides driving courses for suitable candidates, and currently employs 500 male drivers along with six female drivers, ranging from 30- to 45-years-old.

Despite being a minority, female cabbies make better profits “because they are specifically requested by customers for longer rides, from the Fifth Settlement (el-Tagammu el-Khames) to 6th October, for example,” notes Abdel Rahman. “Whereas rides with male drivers are mostly inside the city.”

Consequently, starting from a fixed monthly salary of LE700 for both genders, women can double their earnings as a result of the 20-percent commission they receive on each ride.

According to Abdel Rahman, this financial disparity–along with the idea that women should not drive taxis–at first strained relations between the two genders. Even though Cairo Cab Company provides family taxis rather than women-only cabs, more than 60 percent of their customers are women, including wives, students and female tourists.

“Women from Arab countries always ask for female drivers when they come to Egypt,” says Abdel Rahman.

Ali Abul Yazeed, a 54-year-old taxi driver in the same company, doesn’t envy the success of his female colleagues.

“I think it’s a good idea. It provides more job opportunities, and many girls prefer to have female drivers. Some customers may not fully trust female drivers, but they still believe it’s more safe,” Abul Yazeed says. He goes on to note, however, that “while one woman can make LE400 per day, a man can barely earn LE200 a day.”

However, the initiative has received some criticism from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), which, on its website, describes the project as “a naïve attempt to solve a problem that will have dangerous effects on social and security problems.” The center adds: “The solutions to these problems require hard work, proper planning, and studying root causes, opposed to creating women-designated areas that restrict and isolate women.”

Abdel Rahman, for his part, says his aim was not to prevent sexual harassment, but to make profits and offer job opportunities to people of both genders. In addition, he notes, women taxi drivers do not work only with female customers, but with patrons of both sexes.

“I don’t have problems driving men since they deal with the call center and not with me, providing all their personal information to the company,” Enas says. “I never pick up male clients from the street, though, because this could be dangerous.”

And for Abul Yazeed, “this idea do not support women’s isolation; it is rather a way to provide women for more safety according to their demand. Metro only-women cars are also a good service though some women do not use it. Anyone is free to do whatever he/she wants.”

Enas admits, however, that she often receives angry stares from male drivers, and that she is often subject to verbal harassment from people on the street.

This has not, however, served to deter Enas, or her five female colleagues.

“I’m very busy–the first in my garage,” she says proudly. “I get more calls than anyone.”

Additional reporting by Nehal Mostafa

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