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Women-only taxis hit Cairo streets

CAIRO (AFP) -- A waxed rag in hand, Inas Hamam gives her car a good buff as she awaits her first clients of the day — Egyptian women, tired of sexual harassment, who prefer a female taxi driver.

Following in the tracks of other female-friendly services — carriages reserved for women on Cairo's metro and women-only cafes — the first all-female taxis have started to make an appearance on the busy streets of Cairo, a move criticized by opponents of such segregation.

“It's a start. I think it's an excellent idea that a space be reserved for women on public transport,” said Inas, a 36-year-old mother of one.

“I'll be the first to encourage it,” added Inas, who like most Muslim Egyptian women, dons the hijab — the Islamic headscarf.

The taxi initiative was launched by the private Cairo Cab, which has reserved a part of its fleet to the women-only service.

The company receives around 300 calls a day, with 80 percent of women callers asking for a female driver, Cairo Cab's Mahmud Kamel told AFP.

In recent years, women — Egyptians whether veiled or not, and foreign residents — have become more vocal about verbal and physical sexual harassment on the streets and on public transport, amid efforts by the government and rights groups to shed light on the problem.

In December, Egypt's deputy parliament speaker and member of the National Women's Council Zeinab Radwan called for a law to protect women from sexual harassment, which she said had reached “savage” levels and threatened society's “collapse.” Women's rights groups in Egypt have long campaigned against sexual harassment and assault in Cairo, accusing police of ignoring the phenomenon.

Convictions are relatively rare in Egypt, which does not have a law defining sexual harassment.

According to a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Right (ECWR), 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Egypt had experienced sexual harassment.

But the rights group is less than thrilled about the idea of a taxi service just for women, believing it will increase the gap between the sexes in public places.

“This kind of initiative isolates women and sidelines them,” said Nihad Abul Qomsan, a lawyer who heads the ECWR.

“It reinforces the idea that a woman is vulnerable and needs special protection. In the long term, this risks decreasing women's chances in the job market and weakening their role in society,” she said.

The service received a mixed reaction on the street.

“We are not used to seeing women cab drivers,” said student Mona Ashraf.

She sees it more as a “man's job”. But father Mohammed Salah, who comes from a working class neighborhood, found the scheme comforting.

“If I order a taxi for my daughter, it reassures me to know that the driver is a woman,” he said.

Still, many Egyptians for whom a cab ride is an unaffordable luxury, have to resort to crammed minibuses where sexual harassment of women is common.

Photo: Egyptian taxi driver Ines Hassan rides her taxi in Cairo. (AFP photo)

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