Published March 07, 2012
CAIRO - It has all the trappings of an Egyptian taxi. The radio is usually tuned to the legendary singer Umm Kulthoum, whose robust voice is a favorite among cabbies. On the dashboard is a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. But startlingly, so are a stick of black eyeliner and lip gloss.
Nadia Abdel-Gaber frequently gets double-takes from customers who hail her cab.
"First thing anyone ever says to me always is 'How strange a woman is driving a taxi'," said Nadia Abdel-Gaber, who is one of just a handful of female taxi drivers in Egypt.
Driving a cab is considered a man's work in conservative Egypt. The genders mix relatively freely here, compared to many other Muslim nations, but the idea of driving the streets and picking up strangers is seen by most as inappropriate for women. Even Abdel-Gaber's family do not support her work -- especially her sister, who lives in Saudi Arabia where women are prohibited from driving at all.
But Abdel-Gaber says there's no shame in standing on her own two feet. A single mother of three teenagers -- her husband abandoned them, she says -- she needs the work. She owns the cab and previously she rented it out to other drivers. But when they racked up too many maintenance costs, she took the wheel herself.
"Instead of relying on others, I can work and spend on my children's tutoring and food and outings with their friends," said Abdel-Gaber, who is in her 40s. She has a Masters in agricultural engineering but could never find a job in the field that paid enough.
She selects her customers, passing on young males who may harass her; she never goes to the outskirts of Cairo; and she rarely works at night. But being a woman has perks: She has a roster of female customers who call on her, more comfortable being stuck in traffic with a woman behind the wheel than a man who may sneak leering peeks back at his passenger. And she's carved out a place for herself in a man's world. She said she unwinds at night by joining male taxi drivers at a traditional cafe, sipping coffee and playing backgammon.
"Look, job opportunities are hard, so as women we need to see what we can do and just go down and do it," said Abdel-Gaber, a smile rarely leaving her face. "Stop being afraid."