“While women can be found working in car-repair workshops across Egypt, it is still unusual to come across a workshop with all-female mechanics or a female owner. But in the light of recent advances in automotive technology, there is an opportunity for them to excel and to avoid the need to rely on physical strength,” commented Sayed Mahmoud, founder of the Builders of Hope initiative that trains and employs young men and women in various fields.
“Today, the field of car maintenance is becoming more advanced, and the majority of repairs are now done with the aid of computers. More than 80 per cent of tasks that used to require physical strength do not now require it, and other tasks such as programming car keys, recharging air conditioners, or restoring vehicles after accidents now rely on computerised processes, eliminating the need for physical strength,” he added.
Donia Ashraf, a car-repair instructor, shares Mahmoud’s views. “Diagnostic devices are now used to identify problems instead of a mechanic’s expertise or manual investigation. Nowadays, mechanics can use the same device to detect trouble in a wide range of models, and they offer me and other women an advantage in the automotive maintenance field. Our proficiency in English and our ability to use these diagnostic devices give us an advantage over traditionally trained male mechanics,” she said.
Similarly, Rahma Abdel-Latif, an instructor at the Institute of Technical and Vocational Studies in Alexandria, said that “I chose to specialise in the manufacture of car parts even though I graduated at the top of my class in the Mechanics Department. This specialisation has given me an extra advantage with the support of advanced technology. By using sophisticated devices and software, I am able to accurately determine the required car parts and make any adjustments as needed.
“However, despite the technological advances and a reduction in the amount of physical effort required, there is still a minimum level of physical strength necessary for success in automotive maintenance,” she said. “At the beginning of my career in auto repair, I struggled with weak hand muscles, so I started to exercise in the gym to strengthen my hands. That considerably helped me with using the tools in the workshop.”
While some women may still have problems with the physically demanding side of the job, Ashraf said that the physical challenges of handling heavy car parts are not restricted to women.
“A man working alone can also have problems in this regard,” she said “The heavy components of the engine and transmission system have to be lifted and removed with the assistance of others. Because carrying car parts that are abnormally heavy demands a high level of physical strength, many men may need help lifting them.
“A mechanic does this kind of work along with others, while I specialise in troubleshooting that relies on thinking and innovation. In this way, the mechanic and I complement each other, and it’s not expected that both of us will perform the same tasks.”
“In the early stages of my career, I faced physically demanding tasks. But over time, I acquired the skills to use tools and equipment effectively, reducing the need for excessive physical strength. Today, I ensure that the women I train learn how to select the right tools to minimise the physical effort required,” Ashraf said.
Abdel-Latif said she had had a similar experience, noting that “supervisors in workshops and training centres supported me in overcoming various physical challenges. One of my workshop supervisors would even applaud whenever I successfully disassembled a challenging part or removed a stubborn screw.”
“The increase in the number of maintenance centres has also significantly contributed to the increased presence of women in the industry. And these centres emphasise competence as the key factor for hiring employees, regardless of gender,” she added.
“The young women I teach are keen to learn and to work in various automotive-related specialisations, including technology and mechanics. Several women I know have worked as technicians and engineers in the railway sector, performing various roles, from driving to fixing trains.
“All these factors have led to the increased participation of women in the automotive maintenance field,” she said.
WOMEN DRIVERS: An increase in the number of women driving cars in Egypt has also led to a higher demand for female technicians, Mahmoud said.
“As we researched ways to develop the car-maintenance profession for women, we found that 40 per cent of women now drive cars and need to understand basic repairs and the technical aspects of vehicles. The growing participation of women in the car-maintenance market will address the need for female technicians, a demand currently overlooked by the maintenance industry,” she said.
Catering to the needs of female car users has also caught Ashraf’s attention, who said that she had added “customised on-demand services when I realised that many women were facing breakdowns on the road.”
They often wanted a woman mechanic, she said, as sometimes male mechanics would charge exorbitant fees, claiming that repairs were very complicated and expensive and taking advantage of the fact that many women drivers do not really understand cars.
“As a result, I had the idea of providing car-repair services either on the road or at the workplace by women for women,” Mahmoud said. “The call-out mechanics can also come to the home if the women don’t have time to go to a repair centre.”
In spite of the opposition that some women may still experience in the car-repair field, their work can contribute to the advancement of all women, Mahmoud argued.
“We conducted an experiment with the Journalism Institute in Cairo in which we trained male and female students in computer diagnostics, programming, and modern car-repair techniques. Contrary to common assumptions, we discovered a high degree of interest and talent in this sector among women, who were able to carry out all types of car repair,” she said.
“Women possess significant untapped potential that can be harnessed in the car-maintenance industry, particularly because many of them have a keen interest in this field. Moreover, they don’t confine themselves to training institutes alone, but also actively pursue internships in workshops, gaining valuable experience in repairing various types of automobiles.”
WOMEN’S REPAIRS: “During my training, I realised I was dealing with less common cars, and most of my customers owned different models. As a result, I began training to fix these different types of cars,” Ashraf explained.
Abdel-Latif also emphasised the importance for women to work in street workshops and not just go to training centres. “Training centres adhere to worldwide standards and employ genuine car parts for repairs, leaving no opportunity for innovation,” she said. While both of these things are important, they might not reflect real conditions on the road.
Abdel-Latif has been able to find a creative space to innovate and provide cost-effective alternatives to replacing car parts at workshops. “Some mechanics may use inappropriate replacements in the absence of genuine spare parts, but my studies have helped me to find suitable alternatives with the same proportions and dimensions as the original ones without causing future malfunctions,” she said.
Even so, finding job opportunities for women in workshops and gaining acceptance within the mostly male automotive-maintenance community remains a work in progress for many women. “Initially, I struggled to persuade those around me to accept my presence in the car-maintenance field. Family, the workshop owners, colleagues, and even sometimes customers refused to have me work on vehicles, often preferring a male mechanic instead,” Ashraf said.
“If a male technician makes a mistake while fixing my car, I can argue with him,” said one client who asked to remain anonymous when talking to Al-Ahram Weekly. “But I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so with a female mechanic. I might not be able to assert my rights.”
However, some workshop owners are more open and may even exploit the situation to showcase and draw attention to their businesses. “One workshop owner even informed me that he would hire me to create a buzz about having a female mechanic in the workshop,” Abdel-Latif said.
Adopting a different perspective, Mahmoud Al-Hennawi, the owner of an auto-repair workshop in Alexandria, said that “the responsibility for the technicians at the workshop rests with the owner. Donia Ashraf is the only women working at my workshop, but I did not hire her because she is a woman. She performs her role to the fullest and genuinely understands the field.
“She specialises in diagnosing faults in vehicles, and before she came to work for me I had to take some vehicles to an external centre to be looked at. After Donia joined, this specialisation is now available at my workshop as well.”
“As a female technician, I started to gain acceptance when those around me witnessed my dedication and passion for what I do. I also participated in the first technical education competition in Egypt in the automotive field and secured third place. Afterwards, my family encouraged me, and then workshop owners, colleagues, and even customers began to see things differently. Training centres now invite me to collaborate with them, and customers specifically request my expertise,” Ashraf said.
“To gain acceptance in the automotive-repair field, I advise trainees to start working at training centres. Maintenance facilities enforce standards of behaviour, and that can help young women avoid the troublemakers and harassers they might encounter in regular street workshops, enabling them to focus on learning and mastering their craft before having to confront obstacles,” she added.
In her efforts to support the acceptance of women in the automotive-repair field and encourage their active participation, Reem Abul-Makarem, an automotive engineer, has also harnessed the power of technology.
“I work hard to dispel myths about women’s ability to drive and work in car maintenance. After studying automotive engineering, I chose to combine my subject of study with my passion for media and to offer automotive-related Web content,” she said.
“I launched a video series to educate women about car maintenance and driving, drawing on what I learned in training workshops and at university and particularly focusing on diagnostic troubleshooting.”
“I chose the name Sewaqa Harimi for my programme, as I wanted a name that would reflect women who have recently started driving. Sewaqa Harimi is usually used by those who criticise women’s driving, so I wanted to take it over to represent women’s knowledge of traffic rules and driving instead,” Abul-Makarem explained.
She has introduced outstanding, but often overlooked, women in the car-maintenance and driving communities to the wider public and now organises an annual event to celebrate these remarkable women, including champions in car racing.
She also launched her video series three years ago, with one episode receiving 55,000 views. She has amassed a following of 49,600 on Facebook and 70,800 on YouTube, with one episode, on traffic signs, gaining an immense number of views.
However, despite all this supportive feedback, Abul-Makarem was surprised to find that she needed to challenge not only men’s, but also women’s, false stereotypes regarding women in auto-repair jobs.
“Many of those who criticised me most were women, especially after I presented an episode on how to change a car tyre. Some female viewers objected to their handling some of the more challenging aspects of cars, like changing tyres,” she said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly