Women-driven taxis are popular in Middle East

By Cam McGrath, DPA,

Cairo : Fleets of “pink” taxis, driven by women, are cruising the streets of Middle East cities, providing a safe and comfortable ride for women wary of getting into taxis driven by men.

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“Many times I had problems with (male) drivers acting indecently,” said Noha Mohammed, a veiled Egyptian housewife.

“When I told my husband, he refused to let me take taxis, but he wasn’t always available to drive me places, and so I stayed home. When I heard that there were taxis with women drivers, I was excited.”

Iran rolled out its first women-only taxis in late 2006. The United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt have also added such services.

Proponents say these services improve the mobility of women in conservative Middle East societies and reduce the risk of sexual harassment. But critics warn they may reinforce the segregation of women and undermine hard-won advances in gender equality.

Nawal Yaghi Fakhri, owner of Banet Taxi, said she launched her women-only taxi service in Beirut in March 2009 as a safe and convenient alternative to regular taxis. The company’s 10 signature hot-pink Peugeots serve women travelling alone or with their family.

“Women take more care in driving than men,” Fakhri told DPA. “And our female clients may feel more comfortable for other reasons.”

Those other reasons may include fear of sexual harassment and rape, amid a large number of reported cases involve taxis and public transport. Police have advised women to avoid travelling unaccompanied, especially at night.

Some Middle East countries have also designated sections on buses and trains exclusively for female passengers.

Nihad Abu al-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), says that while more needs to be done to protect women from sexual harassment and assault, women-only transportation is a “naive solution” to a complex problem.

“These services represent a setback to movements for the equality of men and women,” she said. “They isolate women from society without addressing the (root causes of) problems such as sexual harassment… and they reduce women’s participation in public life.”

Some argue, however, that women-only transportation services respect cultural values while enabling women to participate more freely and independently.

“This is a traditional Arab country and it is not easy for ladies to take a regular taxi,” said Mohamed Hassan, an agent at Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA), which supervises the city’s women-only taxi dispatch service.

“The pink taxis make it easier for ladies to go to work or activities, and this helps them (integrate with) society.”

City Cab, which runs a fleet of metered taxis in Cairo, launched its women-only service last month in response to high customer demand.

“More than 60 percent of our clients are women asking for female drivers,” said Imad al-Din Abdel-Rahman, the company’s assistant manager. “We have eight female drivers now and will hire more soon.”

City Cab’s “pink” taxis are glossy yellow, like the rest of its fleet. Abdel-Rahman hopes Cairo’s governor will reconsider the firm’s request to paint the cars a distinguishing shade of lavender.

“The colour causes confusion,” he said. “The service is just for women. Of course if a woman comes with her husband we cannot refuse.”

Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, has endorsed the concept of women-driven taxis, provided they serve only female clientele. In a fatwa it urged authorities to pass legislation to ensure the safety of women who work in this field.

Most pink services in the region provide safety training for their female drivers and some operate only during daylight hours. While the restricted hours are intended to protect the drivers, it means the service is not available when needed most.

“Most problems happen at night,” said Dina Adil, an Egyptian university student. “(Male) taxi drivers eye you up in the rear-view mirror and make lewd comments or sexual advances. Whenever a driver takes an unexpected turn or goes down a dark street I get very scared.”

Male taxi drivers have responded with suspicion to women’s incursion into a profession that has traditionally been a male preserve.

“It’s more than just driving. It’s about being able to handle yourself in any situation,” said Ashraf Ibrahim, a Cairo taxi driver. “Taxis break down, traffic police harass you and other drivers can become violent. At these times, it’s better to have a man driving.”