SheCab debate heats up in Jordan

The conservative kingdom is not ready for female taxi drivers, Suha Ma'ayeh reports from Amman.
SheCab leaders Rahmeh Abu Shweimeh, front, Maha Al Amad, centre, and Sura Al Mahasis are three of the students who hope to make getting a taxi a more female-friendly experience in Jordan. Salah Malkawi for The National
SheCab leaders Rahmeh Abu Shweimeh, front, Maha Al Amad, centre, and Sura Al Mahasis are three of the students who hope to make getting a taxi a more female-friendly experience in Jordan. Salah Malkawi for The National

AMMAN // While Jordanians accept female police officers directing traffic, the idea of women sitting behind the wheel of a taxi is still a step too far for many in this conservative kingdom.

Four young Jordanian woman — Rahmeh Abu Shweimeh, Sura Al Mahasis, Maha Al Amad and Salam Abu Khadra — are intent on breaking that taboo.

Next year the women will launch a company called SheCab, a taxi service exclusively for female passengers, despite the venture already having sparked an uproar on social media.

“SheCab will be the first official female taxi company provided by women drivers to women,” said Ms Shweimeh, 22, a pharmacology student.

“We are targeting women who do not use transportation because of family restrictions that prevent them from riding with a male driver. We are trying to make life easier for them and provide them with a safe means of transportation,” she said.

The young women came up with the idea for SheCab last year while attending a five-week programme on women’s leadership in the United States.

After winning a $USD 21,000 (Dh77,000) grant from an innovation fund connected to the US state department, the women are now developing a smartphone app for booking the taxis and tracking their street locations ahead of an official launch next year.

They have also provided financial support to five women who obtained their public transportation driver licences and will drive taxis for SheCab in the future. These women will also attend self defence classes.

Though SheCab’s founders, three undergraduate students and one graduate, are not planning on driving the taxis themselves, they hope the company will help change Jordanian society and also allow women to earn independent incomes.

Despite the intention to make life easier for women, earlier this month, the controversy surrounding such a company was seen in a fiery online debate.

When the US embassy in Amman announced that the women would share their entrepreneurial experience in a live webcast, conservative Jordanians took to the internet to voice their outrage.

One commentator on a local website called the project “prostitution”. Another underlined traditional gender roles, mocking SheCab by saying, “Let the men then stay at home breastfeed the children and cook.”

Though women in Jordan have increasingly become ministers, politicians, lawmakers and bankers, they still only made up 22 per cent of the workforce in 2010, according to a World Bank report.

That the US embassy also posted the webcast on its Facebook page also fuelled fears among conservatives about western values encroaching on Jordanian society.

A headline in local news site Saraya said: “Jordanians are angry because of the [US] ambassador’s behaviour [and are] demanding that she keeps quiet.”

Critics also took to the US embassy’s Facebook page to express their outrage.

A man named Saleh Odeh denounced SheCab as “a devious idea from the enemies of God and religion”, adding that “women are created to set up families”.

Another critic, Anas Alsarrawi, accused the US of “brainwashing Muslims with corrupt ideas under the guise of freedom”.

Jordan is one of the largest recipients of US aid in the world with $USD 1 billion planned per year from 2015-2017. The kingdom is also a key partner in the US-led anti-ISIL coalition in Syria.

Yet, a Pew Research Centre poll published last year shows that only 12 per cent of Jordanians have a favourable view of the US.

Ms Shwiemeh, 22, responded to critics, saying, “People tell me that I have been brainwashed by the Americans after we participated in the programme. But I tell them I have brainwashed the Americans back, changing their perception on Islam and women through our discussions.”

Jordanians also voiced support for SheCab, underlining the ongoing debate being waged in the country on the role of women.

“It is an excellent idea that is implemented in several countries,” wrote Amin Abuhijleh on the US embassy’s Facebook page.

Another commentator, Faten Ajjour, wrote: “It will provide utmost security … I hope it will be implemented.”

Ms Al Amad said on her Facebook page “Feminists of Jordan” that she found men to be more supportive of the taxi project than women.

“Women fought the idea because we live in a patriarchal society, which is deeply rooted,” she said. “But new ideas face resistance.”

Ms Al Mahasis, 22, an undergraduate in clinical pharmacology, said: “We are trying to change society’s perceptions to show that women are capable of working in professions dominated by men.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: September 16, 2015 04:00 AM

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