Egypt’s Latest Gender Revolution Is Behind the Wheel
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Fundamental social transformations can emerge in surprising ways.
Mahy Kassab, 28, knew she loved driving cars, so in 2015, she started her own venture as an independent driving coach for women in the canal city of Port Said in Egypt. She was born in Saudi Arabia, where only recently women have been allowed to drive. But in Port Said, she soon realized, her gender — far from being a drawback — was helping her.
Kassab has hit upon a moment of change in Egyptian society when traditional gender roles are now coalescing with a slow opening-up of the responsibilities women are taking up, in what is still a very male-dominated culture. More and more fathers and husbands are willing to let their daughters and wives learn how to drive. But the idea of a woman sitting with an unrelated man in a car generally remains unacceptable in Egyptian society, so many families don’t accept male instructors for female learners.
For most married women, a female instructor is a very good thing here.
Mahy Kassab, female driving instructor
That cocktail of tradition and increasing openness is spawning a wave of female instructors like Kassab across Egypt, jobs unimaginable for women in the country some years ago. Kassab says she has trained nearly 1,000 female drivers. Luxor-based 24-year-old independent driving instructor Aya Mohamed has trained more than 100 female drivers over the past two years. Entrepreneur Nayrouz Talaat, 36, established a web-based aggregator that connects women who want to learn how to drive with female instructors. In one year, Direxiona, her firm, has employed 50 female instructors and has trained over 1,000 women. And the first women-only driving school in Egypt, Rabab Seyam’s UTurn School, which started in 2013, now employs 35 female instructors in Cairo and Giza.
Not all female activists are convinced that gender-segregated driving classes represent emancipation for Egyptian women. But there’s little denying the economic opportunities this boom is creating in an industry that has traditionally shut women out.
“For most married women, a female instructor is a very good thing here,” says Kassab, a mother of two, citing daily requests from women whose husbands refuse to let them learn with male teachers. “Most men feel jealous when they think that the trainer may touch his wife’s hand while teaching her, or sit close to her.”
Learning to drive is seen by many Egyptian women as a way to reduce the risk of sexual harassment while traveling. Nearly 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a 2013 U.N. study.
But social stigmas persist. In Upper Egypt, a particularly conservative part of the country, parked cars often sit unused for years after the death of their original owners, usually men, because women are scared of perceptions if they are seen learning how to drive from an unknown male, says Mohamed, who teaches driving in Luxor, Edfo, Quos and Qena. “That’s why I thought about training women myself,” she says. “I wanted to make them feel that there are no barriers that can stop them from driving cars.”
The classes are also opening up income opportunities for women. According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, women are breadwinners in 18 percent of households, though recent statistics suggest the number may be closer to 30 percent. A five-class course typically costs between $25 and $34 in some governorates. In Cairo, the course costs between $40 and $55. Each class lasts between one and two hours.
Launching a cadre of female instructors wasn’t easy for these schools. “There are many women who drive in the streets of Egypt, but to convince some of them to work with me and train other women professionally was a challenge,” says Talaat, the owner of the Direxiona aggregator.
Critics argue that gender-specific services aren’t good for the empowerment of Egypt’s women. “Women-only projects are unhealthy for society and won’t make women feel safer or even end sexual harassment,” says Evon Mosad, activist and member of the National Front for Egyptian Women, a body that fights gender discrimination. “Men and women should mix in a natural and respectful way to form a healthy society.”
But the feisty founders of these driving schools don’t see them merely as a service to those who can afford it, or as helping some women find empowerment. They’re also battling larger stereotypes.
Kassab says her classes in Port Said have helped female drivers “overcome their fears.” When Talaat launched her startup, she says was mocked by some men — investors she spoke with and entrepreneurs who questioned the ability of women to teach other women how to drive. “I believe that women can do everything,” she says. “So, I insisted that women can be professional trainers.”
Seyam, who lit the spark with UTurn, carefully chooses instructors “who are cheerful, charismatic, self-confident and bold.” They’re representing more than themselves. She’s also out to correct what she believes is a factor behind the stereotype that women are not good drivers. Male trainers, she says, often “deliberately” don’t give women all the information they need, to ensure extra classes and in turn greater income — a tactic, she says, they are wary of trying with male customers. “I realized that men are the problem,” she says.