Playing it safe

Almost every woman in Egypt has experienced sexual harassment in public. A businesswoman is making the most of this sorry statistic: "Pink Taxi" is a service by women for women. Elisabeth Lehmann reports from Cairo

By Elisabeth Lehmann

One thing that can′t be said of Reem Fawzy is that she lacks confidence. The businesswoman′s office is decorated with photos – all of them showing her. There′s also a coffee mug with her face on it and a likeness of the ancient Egyptian Queen Cleopatra adorned with Reem Fawzy′s facial features.

On the wall is a faded selfie with Hillary Clinton and above it a shot of Reem Fawzy on a panel with Clinton′s daughter Chelsea. "I was chosen at the time as the best – not just the best woman – because of my support for social projects," Fawzy says with pride. "Women′s rights were a hot topic during the revolution, but most people were only talking about them. I did something." She trained women and helped them to get jobs, she says. She sees promoting women in Egypt as a kind of calling, but she′s also aware of the marketing mileage to be had with such ventures.

Women – a "traffic hazard"         

So it comes as no surprise that her new project is also along these lines. "Pink Taxi" is its name – a taxi service by women for women. "After the revolution it got very unsafe for us women to take a taxi," explains 44-year-old Fawzy. She has adapted her look to the company colour scheme. Pink blouse, pink lipstick and nail varnish. Her headscarf, jacket and eyebrows are deep black. Attacks on women in public were suddenly an everyday occurrence after 2011. The first thing Fawzy did when she got into a taxi, she says, was to send the driver′s name and number plate to her family – for safety′s sake.

And so the idea was born to buy 20 pink cars, employ 50 women, train them and send them out into Cairo′s traffic chaos clad in pink uniforms.

Heba fastens her seatbelt, adjusts the rear-view mirror, puts her phone into the centre console, straightens her headscarf – and sets out into Cairo′s rush hour. Actually, it′s always rush hour in Cairo. When Heba pulls out, the driver of a normal white taxi loses control of his features, his chin dropping. "What on earth is this?" he shouts, waving his arms. "That′s dangerous! For the girl and for anyone who takes a ride with her!"

A pink taxi in Cairo (photo: DW/E. Lehmann)
Offering security and protection: Egyptian businesswoman Reem Fawzy has set up a taxi service run by women for women. She wants to restore a sense of streetwise freedom to women in Egypt, where they are habitually subjected to sexual harassment

Comments like that are water off a duck′s back for Heba. Her own husband reacted exactly the same way when she decided to become a taxi driver a few months ago. "He said it wasn′t safe for me, I couldn′t even change a tyre." But she can now. She had two months′ training before she was allowed to drive a taxi for the first time.

Gender segregation

Heba, 36, has been driving for a long time. But before she had a driving licence she often had to take taxis herself. It was a terrible experience. "Many taxi drivers install little mirrors everywhere so they can watch the woman in the back." Private conversations and offensive remarks were usually the next level. "Pink Taxis" are a wonderful idea, she says. "Men see us as dolls. We have to stand up to them."

According to a United Nations study, 99 per cent of Egyptian women have in fact experienced sexual harassment. But critics have also warned against dividing society further into a place where women live in a separate sphere to which men have no access.

No, "Pink Taxis" won′t solve the problem, Reem Fawzy admits, but that′s not her aim. "We′re a private company, not the police. Tackling sexual harassment is the duty of the state."

Demonstrating against sexual harassment in Egypt: "Harassment has nothing to do with the way you dress ". According to a study conducted by the United Nations, 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment

She says she is doing her country a favour with the project, though: "The facts about sexual harassment have got out, and women tourists hardly dare to come to our country now. I′m offering them a safe way to get around." She will send her girls, as she refers to the drivers, to the airport, where they can give foreign customers the perfect welcome.

All drivers need a university degree

"Her girls" are all between 25 and 45, have a university degree and speak English. That′s important to Fawzy; she calls it "attitude". "In my other company, I have many uneducated male drivers. They don′t know how to behave towards customers." In an estate-based society with little social mobility like Egypt, "attitude" can make or break a company.

As if to prove it, Reem Fawzy calls five of her drivers into her office. The young women stand up straight alongside their boss, enthroned upon a leather chair, and smile. That′s another thing she′s taught them. She lured them in by promising the job would get them on TV, Reem Fawzy openly admits. She also happens to pay well; the women earn just under 350 Euro per month.

It was hard to find women who wanted to do the job, to begin with. Taxi drivers enjoy little social standing. "And sometimes we had women, trained them, and then they got married and their husband wouldn′t let them work." Her own husband tried that too, she says. But that′s all water under the bridge now: "These days he just says, ′Do what you like′."

Elisabeth Lehmann

© Deutsche Welle 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire