Female-only taxis, Egypt’s way to curb harassment

Friday 10/07/2015
Women-only cabs, a solution to deep problems?

Cairo - The last time Sherin Abdel- Hafez got into a taxi on the way to work, she ordered the driver to stop and left the vehicle because she felt that the man would eventually verbally harass her.

“Some drivers are just impolite,” said Abdel-Hafez, a civil servant in her early 30s. “Harassment by taxi drivers is becoming so common.”

But a new project, undertaken by a private firm, Pink Taxi Egypt, is promising to reduce sexual harass­ment in transportation across big cities in Egypt. The “pink taxis” — women-only transportation — will be rolling soon in the streets of Cai­ro and other cities in the country to make the ride more secure, safe and comfortable for women.

Egypt, where men and women rub shoulders and fight for a foot­hold in dense and creaky buses and train carriages, has seen a surge in sexual harassment so the an­nouncement of the project received an avalanche of welcoming com­ments on Facebook from women

Traditional taxi drivers, however, expressed dismay at the prospects of losing customers.

“Most of our clients are women. Such a project will take them away from our taxis,” said Mahmoud Mohamed, 42. He and fellow driv­ers say they struggle to make ends meet, earning a maximum of 100 Egyptian pounds — roughly $13 — a day. Egyptian women, though, praised the Pink Taxi project as “the best thing” that could be done, and some asked whether the service would be available in their cities.

The taxis, which are expected to be on the streets in August, will be painted pink, have women drivers and allow men passengers only if they are in the company of a wom­an. The new taxis can be ordered by phone and will be equipped with a positioning system to help clients locate the taxis closest to their lo­cation. The positive reaction to the project reflected women’s despera­tion to curb sexual harassment.

“Women know that there will be no other solution to the problem. That is why they welcomed any idea that will solve the problem, even if in a temporary way,” Mona Ezzat, a founding member of local advocacy group New Woman Foun­dation, said.

Sexual harassment is a wide­spread problem in Egypt, which ranked second in the world, after Afghanistan, in this regard, accord­ing to a report by the UN Women agency. More than 99% of Egyptian girls and women reported experi­encing sexual harassment in their lifetime. Up to 86.5% of women surveyed said they did not feel safe in public transportation, while 82.6% said they did not feel safe on the streets.

A few months ago, a colleague of Abdel-Hafez told her she was al­most raped by a taxi driver on her way home. “When he discovered that she wasn’t an easy nut to crack, the driver took the vehicle and ran away but before this he insisted [on taking] all the money in her purse,” Abdel-Hafez said.

According to Ezzat, “A grow­ing number of women carry blunt weapons in their handbags these days” to discourage possible assail­ants. But she said sex segregation in taxi cars will not solve the prob­lem.

“We need a total change of cul­ture,” Ezzat said. “By separating women from men, we will increase women’s isolation, the matter that we have been fighting against for years.

“Sexual harassment will only come to an end in Egypt when the authorities take firm action against the practice.”

Egypt enacted its first anti-sexual harassment law almost a year ago, with prison terms and fines for those convicted of the crime. But the law is poorly enforced, accord­ing to Shady Hussein, a 22-year-old university student who formed his own “anti-harassment squad” in 2012.

“Some people are on the streets only to abuse women sexually,” he said.

He said when his squad detains a man who has been harassing a woman on the street, they hand him to authorities but soon thereaf­ter the suspect is released without punishment.

“Most of the time, the authorities arrest us, instead of the wrongdo­ers, and accuse us of breaching the law as we have no legal right to ar­rest people,” Hussein said.

Abdel-Hafez said she is largely sceptical about the government’s resolve to take firm action against harassment anytime soon. “But in the meantime,” she said, “women who are tired of harassment and fearing rape can now enjoy the new harassment-free taxis.

“For a woman, it will be much more comfortable and secure to be in the company of a female driver. Personally, I will feel much secure when a lady is driving me home or to work.”