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Egyptian women workers challenge norms at Cairo petrol station

Female petrol station attendants are a new sight on a Cairo forecourt

Ayat Al Tawy , Saturday 19 Mar 2016
Cairo
A female employee fills the tank of a car at a petrol station in Cairo, Egypt, March 15, 2016 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
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For 20-year-old Amira, the opportunity to take a job that is usually reserved for men in Egypt's patriarchal society was a no-brainer.

"This is something that has long been only associated with men… it is a new and fun thing that I was so excited to try," said Amira, part of a small group of female petrol station attendants who started working at a station in Cairo in November.

A female train driver, zookeeper or police officer is not an uncommon sight in many parts of the world, but not in Egypt where gender stereotypes mean that women are rarities in many fields.

While women comprise almost a quarter of Egypt's 28 million-strong workforce, many occupations have remained off-limits. 

Given this, the decision to recruit a group of female attendants was not taken lightly by the station's management.

The oil distribution company that runs the station had put plans for female attendants on the backburner for months, out of concerns about how they would be received, before taking the decision to hire the group.

The company also made sure to secure the consent of the young women's parents before employing them.

But despite concerns about potential hostility or widespread sexual harassment, so far their work has been trouble-free.

The location of the gas station, by the Nile in the affluent neighbourhood of Maadi, may be part of the reason.

Amira, dressed in her red uniform, says the case would not have been the same "if we were in Shubra" – a more traditional neighbourhood in northern Cairo.

"Here, the station is more like a 5-star hotel, but elsewhere, we could have had a very hard time."

Cairo
A female employee fills the tank of a car at a petrol station in Cairo, Egypt, March 15, 2016 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)

Nonetheless, female attendants do not do everything their male colleagues do; they are assigned morning shifts only, and while their tasks include vehicle-fuelling and cash-handling, they are not allowed to perform other services such as window-cleaning, oil changes, and checking tyre pressure.

"Such tasks involve a lot of body movements that might grab people's attention," Mohamed Ibrahem, the petrol station's director, told Ahram Online.

But men and women at the station do get paid equally, Ibrahem said, based on the number of their working hours.

While the job earns a decent salary due to tips – sometimes resulting in a monthly take home pay above the average government salary of EGP 3200 (around $360) – many of the women say it wasn't the money that motivated them.

"I did not seek it because I was jobless," 22-year-old attendant Abrar, a university student, explained. "There are many other conventional jobs out there with very good pay."

Cairo
Female employees are seen with their men colleagues as they work at a petrol station in Cairo, Egypt, March 15, 2016 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)

The women say that they have been overwhelmed with a flurry of favourable feedback from almost all of the station's patrons, from words of praise to gifts.

"A university professor once got out of his car and bowed to me," attendant Abrar said. "And a woman kissed my colleague's hand in awe."

"Everybody is happy with us. A man shouting on the phone can suddenly smile at me when I come to serve him," added her colleague Aya.

"Those girls are better than men idling at cafes claiming there are no jobs in the country," commented Abdel, one of the station's patrons.

Egypt's unemployment rate among young people is sky-high  at 27.4 percent of 15 to 29-year-olds  but the disparity among men and women is also striking; around 24 percent among women while only 9.6 percent of men.

The station's management says that traffic and sales have gone up noticeably since women were hired, and the company now plans a roll-out in the Egyptian capital during 2016.

But it's clear that, despite the resounding success of the first female attendants, some Egyptians will need a lot of persuading.

"Women are different to men at the end of the day. We are not in Europe," said Adel, who works at another petrol station in eastern Cairo. 

Cairo
A female employee is seen at work at a petrol station in Cairo, Egypt, March 15, 2016 Egypt, March 15, 2016 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)

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