DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Azza Mohammed adjusted her head scarf, put on sunglasses and straightened a long skirt before getting behind the wheel to pick up her first customer - and thus become the first female taxicab driver in the Persian Gulf.
Mohammed and six other women are part of a new female cab service launched by the Dubai Transport Company - a first in this conservative, oil-rich region where women do not often drive because of social restrictions or laws against it, as in Saudi Arabia.
Company director Mohammad Obaid Al Mulla said government-owned DTC had been flooded with requests from women customers who did not want to be driven by men.
The seven drivers had to overcome family opposition and cultural prejudices before they were able to break into the male-dominated field. There have been no complaints from the conservative segments of the society, however, apparently because only women customers will be using the cabs.
"My husband's family said this was no job for a woman. They said it was better for me to stay home and take care of the kids. But I insisted and my husband supported me," said Mohammed, a 35-year-old mother of six.
The women earn about the same amount they would as secretaries, but receive extra benefits such as full medical insurance, transportation and housing allowances, and bonuses. They will actually make about 30 percent more than their 3,000 male counterparts, with a basic salary of $685 per month.
In their beige and brown long-sleeved outfits and head scarves that flow past their shoulders, the drivers look like conservative flight attendants.
"We were told that we wouldn't be subjected to any harassment, that we wouldn't be dealing with male clients, and we feel safe," said Khadija Ibrahim, 35, a widowed mother of seven from Syria who previously worked as a secretary.
Unlike their male counterparts, the women will not drive around picking up fares but will be dispatched to pick up female customers and their families only upon request. The drivers all have been given mobile telephones to ensure that they can call for help if they encounter any difficulties.
Customers are both local women and foreigners, Al Mulla said. Dubai, a tourist and commercial hub, attracts tens of thousands of visitors from the Persian Gulf region every year. Some women travel to the city without male relatives and feel more comfortable having a woman drive them around, Al Mulla said.
The seven drivers were chosen from 30 applicants who went through a rigorous three-month training course.
They were taught to navigate the roads, perform basic first aid and deal with car trouble, police officers and their customers. They also were given some English lessons to help them communicate with non-Arabic speaking clients, said Gehad Asbita, the head of the company's training center.
The women, 25 to 35 years of age, come from the Emirates, Syria, Sudan and Jordan and from various backgrounds as well.
Ihsan Abdul-Wahab, a 27-year old Sudanese, is a psychology major who decided to become a cab driver because she couldn't find work in her field.
Abla Hassan, a 25-year-old Jordanian, seems to have found her calling.
"Everyone thinks it's silly but ever since I was a teenager I have loved driving," she said. "I used to take my father's car and just drive around the city for hours," she said, laughing.
Now she's getting paid for it.
Back to the Taxi-L Culture and History Page