Cairo, - As it prepares to expand to serve a population now exceeding 20 million, the Cairo metro has recruited Egypt's first female train drivers, a novelty in a country where few women have formal jobs.
Since April, commuters on the network's newest line have seen women take the controls in the driver's cab, with reactions ranging from raised eyebrows to outright disapproval, according to the two pioneers.
Egyptian women have had the right to vote and stand for office since 1956, but patriarchal legislation and a male-dominated culture have severely limited personal rights.
The Cairo metro itself provides reserved carriages for women who do not wish to ride with men in an attempt to provide protection against sexual harassment. Business graduate and mother of two Hind Omar said she had rushed to apply to be a train driver, eager to be a pioneer in a country where only 14.3 percent of women are in formal employment, according to 2020 figures.
"I have several thousand lives in my hands every day," the 30-year-old told AFP, proudly wearing a fluorescent jacket emblazoned with the RATP-Dev logo of the foreign operations arm of the Paris metro beneath her black and white headscarf.
Omar acknowledged that she had been lucky to have the support of her family. "My parents found it strange at first but they ended up supporting me," she said. "My husband was enthusiastic from the start and always encouraged me."
A key factor had been the exemption from night shifts offered to women drivers, she said.
Omar said the tests for would-be drivers had been grueling, requiring candidates to demonstrate their "attention span" and "endurance".
She said drivers had to remain "extremely vigilant for long hours" during a six-day working week.
Omar was one of two women accepted for the training programme run by Egypt's National Authority for Tunnels in cooperation with RATP-Dev. The other, Suzanne Mohamed, 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 told AFP. "They doubted my skills and said they didn't feel safe with a woman at the controls."
Launched in 1987, the Cairo metro is the oldest in the Arab world but it 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.
Even in Saudi Arabia, where until recently women were banned from driving cars, the first group of women is currently in training to be drivers on the railways.
With the Cairo metro planning to add three new lines as well as Egypt's first monorail system, Omar said she hoped her example would help "pave the way for other women" to become train drivers and ensure "that there's a lot of us".