'They doubted my skills': Cairo's first female train drivers proud to take controls

Launched in 1987, the city's metro is the oldest in the Arab world, but has fallen behind other Arab countries in providing employment opportunities for women

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Cairo metro's first female train drivers have spoken of the admiration — and occasional disapproval — they have received from commuters since taking the controls.

The metro’s contingent of female drivers were hired in April, a first in a predominantly Muslim Arab country.

It coincides with the significant expansion of the Cairo metro, which is used daily by up to five million of the Egyptian capital’s 20 million residents.

Cairo's metro has been the transport mode of choice for many of the city’s working and middle classes, despite significant fare increases in recent years.

It has, however, failed to reduce the near total reliance on cars of the city’s more affluent commuters, perpetuating Cairo's nightmare traffic congestion and air pollution.

Reflecting the city’s conservatism and frequency of sexual harassment in public places, the Cairo metro has women-only carriages to protect female passengers.

Hind Omar pilots a train simulator at Adly Mansour station in Cairo's suburb of Heliopolis in May. AFP

One of the new female drivers is mother-of-two Hind Omar, who said she rushed to apply to be a train driver, eager to be a pioneer in a country where only 14.3 per cent of women are in formal employment, according to 2020 figures.

"I have several thousand lives in my hands every day," said the 30-year-old business graduate, wearing a fluorescent jacket.

"My parents found it strange at first, but they ended up supporting me. My husband was enthusiastic from the start and always encouraged me."

One perk that attracted her even more is the exemption of women drivers from doing the night shift, she said.

Metro train driver Suzanne Mohamed. AFP

The tests for would-be drivers, she said, required her and other candidates to demonstrate their "attention span" and "endurance".

Another driver, Suzanne Mohammed, 32, recalled the first time commuters on the platform saw her in the driver's cab.

She said she could understand "they were surprised" in a country where women have limited access to many careers.

"Some passengers were afraid," she said. "They doubted my skills and said they didn't feel safe with a woman at the controls."

Women ride the Cairo metro in the women only car on May 18, 2008.

Launched in 1987, the Cairo metro is the oldest in the Arab world, but has fallen behind other Arab countries in providing employment opportunities for women.

Moroccan Saida Abad became the first female train driver in Africa and the Arab world in 1999.

In Saudi Arabia, where women had until recently been banned from driving cars, a first group of women is currently going through training to become railway drivers.

Updated: August 21, 2022, 1:26 PM