Down a backstreet in Cairo, a group of men stare at Nour Gaber as she climbs into her car and starts the engine. “Is that car really hers?” whispers one man to another.

The car in question is a taxi, and Ms. Gaber is used to the gawpers. She is one of Egypt’s few female taxi drivers, an oddity in a line of work often deemed unsuitable for women.

“It’s a masculine society, and they always say women belong to the houses and the kitchen,” explains 45-year-old Ms. Gaber, who started driving a taxi in 2009. “People often point at me and say: ‘Female taxi driver!’” But, five years after she first turned on the meter, Ms. Gaber no longer wants to be the odd one out. She is setting up an academy to train women to join her in the trade, and is searching for an angel investor to help fulfil her plan to give four groups of 25 women a year a course in taxi-driving. The programme would encompass driving technique, customer service, mental strength, car maintenance and English lessons.

“I don’t just want to be an experiment, and nothing more,” says Ms. Gaber. “I want to create a centre so that women won’t have the difficulties that I had — and so that society might accept women working in a ‘male’ profession, and might even be better than men at it.” Ms. Gaber thinks the scheme will benefit the economy, since it will help increase household incomes by encouraging more women into work. Only 23.7 per cent of women work in Egypt, according to the latest UN figures, compared with 74.3 per cent of men. But Ms. Gaber has even higher aims.

“I want to take women out of this oppression that is imposed on them by men,” she says. “Women at home don’t know anything about what’s going on in the world outside. But if they go out in the streets and work in taxis, they’ll gain more knowledge, understand mechanics, the roads, and [learn more about] people’s ideas.” Ms. Gaber started driving taxis after separating from her husband, who left her to pay for their three children’s upbringing. An agricultural engineer, Ms. Gaber couldn’t find work in her chosen field, so to pay the bills she bought a taxi and hired it to a male driver. When he proved to be unreliable, Ms. Gaber decided she could make more money driving it herself.

Ignoring the potential social stigma, as well as fears of harassment from male passengers, Ms. Gaber got the confidence boost she needed from her first passenger. He took her on a multi-destination odyssey from west to east Cairo, and said Ms. Gaber was doing the right thing.

Soon she got the hang of Cairo’s geography, and before long she was in high demand from families and female passengers tired of frequent harassment — an endemic problem in Egypt — from male drivers. As her reputation spread, charities and rights groups such as Amnesty began to employ her on a private basis — recognising her punctuality and reliability.

Ms. Gaber’s own sisters and children took a while to approve her venture. But gradually, Ms. Gaber says, she won over critics — and now drinks coffee every night with her male colleagues, who see her as just another cabbie. “I can’t deny that some men wave me over and then tell me to drive on when they realise I’m a woman,” Ms. Gaber says. “But if I focus on people telling me it’s the wrong thing to do, there will never be a change. These days need the hands of women as well as men — and while it might be hard in the beginning, society will accept it eventually.” There have been a handful of female taxi drivers as far back as the 90s, but Ms. Gaber says she feels people have been quicker to accept them since Egypt’s 2011 revolution — an uprising that not just toppled a dictator, but sparked a reappraisal of social attitudes.

“I felt like it was a shameful thing in the beginning,” Ms. Gaber remembers. “Everyone looked at me. But after a while I felt encouraged by them, and this fear I had inside of me started to decrease. In the end I found that our society will accept the driver whether it’s a woman or a man.”

© Guardian News & Media 2014

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