With a great degree of attentiveness, Dalia Adel (43) polishes her red scooter, parked in the historic Hussein district of Old Cairo.
She pauses momentarily to say: “This scooter is my only practical means for transportation in the streets of Cairo, saving me countless hours that could have been spent in traffic, and money that would be spent on gas or taxis.”
Adel studied English literature at the Faculty of Al-Alsun (Languages) at Ain Shams University, and subsequently taught English for a few years at a prominent English-language center. A resident of the relatively upscale district of Heliopolis at the time, a trip to work meant trekking 15 long, congested kilometers to the Agouza district on the other side of town.
Choosing to avoid Cairo’s perpetually overcrowded public transportation system, she bought a motorbike to drive to work every day.
However, soon afterwards, she decided to switch to a scooter, which she affectionately nicknamed Marika, purchasing a matching red helmet with it.
With her red scooter and helmet, Adel glides through the streets of Cairo, and over the past few years, many young women have begun to follow her lead.
The sight of a woman driving a scooter or motorbike in Egypt, even in large metropolitan areas such as the capital, is still relatively taboo, often exposing these women to harassment. However, in recent years, many young women have flocked to the relatively versatile vehicle, amid Cairo’s ballooning congestion problem, which costs the country an estimated $6.5 billion per year.
For Basma El-Gabry, a recent graduate from the Faculty of Commerce, it did not suffice to simply drive a scooter in the streets. She decided to go one step further, launching an initiative to teach other young women to ride scooters under the hashtag #girlsgowheels.
She tells Raseef22 that she had always wanted to learn how to ride a scooter, which to her constituted a means of evading the constant harassment most women are exposed to on a daily basis in the streets and on public transportation. In a city with a population of over 22 million, set to grow by another half a million within the year, overcrowding is inevitable and sexual harassment is rampant.
According to El-Gabry, driving a scooter is easy enough, but the real challenge lies in navigating Cairo’s potholed streets, as well as the frequent harassment. Moreover, scooter drivers are exposed to breakdowns and accidents.
“It took me a while to become experienced enough to deal with these challenges, and so I decided to launch my initiative to share this earned experience,” she says.
Meet the Egyptian women who defied traditions and took on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on their scooters. Combatting sexual harassment and congestion, various initiatives have sprung up in Egypt to teach young women to ride scooters.
Meet the Egyptian women who defied traditions and took on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on their scooters.
Combatting sexual harassment and congestion, various initiatives have sprung up in Egypt to teach young women to ride scooters.
El-Gabry launched the Girls Go Wheels initiative about three years ago, with the aim of making it a reference point for young women across the capital.
Without a headquarter, she led this mobile campaign to teach young women to drive scooters for small fees. She further provides them with advice on where to obtain licenses, where to go for maintenance, and how to avoid road risks. Under the initiative, about 150 young women were taught how to drive scooters.
El-Gabry notes that the initiative has the wider benefit of saving gas, making it more environmentally than other forms of transportation.
Many of these young women have turned to scooters as an escape from the various forms of sexual harassment they face on a day-to-day basis. According to a UN report, approximately 99.3% of Egyptian women have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment in their lives.
As far as Dalia Adel is concerned, riding a scooter gives her a great sense of freedom, in spite of the restrictions imposed by society.
“I learned how to ride a scooter in one class. When you’ve been driving a motorbike for years, you learn how to maintain your balance, which is predominantly what is required to drive a scooter,” she says.
As for El-Gabry, she views the scooter as her weapon to combat harassment, as well as what she perceives as regressive local traditions that shackle young women in different ways.
From Capital to Coast
About two hours northwest of Cairo, in the coastal city of Alexandria, Shaimaa Ali stands by her scooter on the corniche.
The law graduate learned how to ride her scooter four years ago, at a time when young women on scooters was still an extreme rarity. Nonetheless, she ventured forth into the new experience.
Sparking the curiosity of other young women like her, she soon found herself bombarded with questions from young women who seemed eager to follow in her footsteps.
Thus, she decided to launch her own initiative in Alexandria, a scooter school named Let’s Scoot.
“Four years ago, there were only four of us [women] riding scooters in Alexandria, including me and my sister,” Ali tells Raseef22.
Ali is not satisfied to simply teach young women to ride scooters and repair them; she also gives them strategies on how to deal with parents’ objections, and how to confront harassment or incidents while driving.
“Within the first month of the school’s inception, I had taught only 30 women. The numbers increased exponentially thereafter, and today, thousands of young women can drive their scooters with confidence in Alexandria,” Ali says.
Similarly, Shams Al-Gaarany cannot imagine her life without her scooter. The 20-year-old began driving two years ago in Alexandria, to travel to college. She also wanted to prove to herself that she could learn something new.
But first, she had to convince her parents. In an overwhelmingly conservative society, where most young people live in their parents’ home until marriage, the majority of Egyptian families would likely resist the idea of a young woman on a scooter. However, contrary to her expectations, Al-Gaarany’s parents agreed straight away.
She nonetheless faced various challenges when she first began driving. For many young women in Egypt, navigating the streets is a challenge under any circumstances. Al-Gaarany recalls a time when a man tugged at her hair while she was on her scooter.
In another incident, a man followed her until he knocked her off her scooter. But with every incident, she recalls that she was able to emerge stronger and more experienced.
Echoing Past Battles
In Al-Gaarany’s opinion, the struggle young women are facing today resembles the past battles that Egyptian women had to fight to drive cars.
“In two years, the number of women riding scooters will rise to record highs. It’s simply the best way to travel here,” she says.
The history of feminist struggles in Egypt has witnessed various stages, and saw Abassia Ahmed Farghaly become the first Egyptian woman to obtain a driving license in 1920, though the license was issued in France. Nonetheless, she paved the way for the millions of women that would follow her.
For her part, Al-Gaarany began uploading video clips on her personal account, encouraging young women to ride scooters, while speaking honestly about the challenges they would face.
“If you decide to buy a scooter, know that you will be treated like an alien by other Egyptians. People will look at you with shock, but fear not,” Al-Gaarany says in one of these clips as she smiles.